A statewide emergency COVID-19 mask order set to expire Monday will extend until at least Oct. 2, Gov. Kay Ivey announced Thursday, but the extended order ends the prohibition on self-service drink stations, buffets and salad bars.
"Folks, I understand you don't want to wear the mask. I don't either," Ivey said at a news conference. "I wish we didn't have to wear masks, but we have seen significant drops in our hospitalizations and daily positive COVID-19 numbers, and I have no doubt this is a result of our mask ordinance."
Except for the expiration date and the loosening of self-serve restrictions, the order is identical to one she issued July 15.
Health care workers applauded the extension of the mask order, including Dr. James Boyle, a pulmonologist and medical director of the intensive care and critical care units at Decatur Morgan Hospital, who said he was "all in" with an order he believes is reducing transmission of the virus.
Anita Walden, Decatur Morgan Hospital's chief nursing officer, also was enthusiastic about Ivey's extension of the order.
"I think it's a wonderful thing that she's done," Walden said, and she's convinced the mask order has reduced disease transmission.
"Absolutely it's reduced hospitalizations," she said, both because of the mask's protective properties and because it serves as a reminder. "When people wear masks, you see them automatically distance. Maybe it's just the visual that reminds you to keep your distance, but I definitely think it's made a difference."
Ivey and State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris, formerly of Decatur, said they are concerned about how the Labor Day weekend will affect COVID-19 numbers that generally have been declining in recent weeks.
"Next weekend, with Labor Day, has the opportunity to cause a lot of spread if people aren't careful," Harris said. "So we really want people to pay attention and do the right thing."
Harris also emphasized that all people 6 months old and above should get flu shots.
"It is really important, as we have flu and COVID-19 circulating in our communities, that we have as many people protected as possible," Harris said.
While self-service will be allowed beginning Monday at 5 p.m. at drink stations, buffets and salad bars, establishments with these features must have a designated employee who ensures customers maintain a 6-foot distance from each other and offer hand sanitizer to to self-serve customers.
Health care professionals applauded the extension of the mask order, but some residents are less enthusiastic. Tom Fredricks of Priceville, treasurer of the Morgan County Republican Party, said he has no problem with the government encouraging mask use, but a big problem with the mandate — even if it's been effective.
"If you want to embrace that logic, then that extends the power of government to mandate anything and everything they want," he said. "I never support the invasion of our liberties. We should not pass mandates that are unenforceable. It ties up the court system and it makes the legislative process look foolish."
The order continues to require a face covering that covers the nostrils and mouth when people are within 6 feet of a person from another household in the following places:
• Schools "to the greatest extent practicable," for employees and students in second grade or above;
• Indoor spaces open to the general public;
• Vehicles operated by a transportation service; and
• Outdoor spaces where 10 or more people are gathered.
The order has several exceptions.
It does not apply to children age 6 and under, or to people who have a medical condition or disability that prevents wearing a mask.
It does not apply to those consuming food or drink, or while seated at a restaurant to eat or drink.
People exercising in a gym need not wear a mask provided they maintain a 6-foot distance from people of other households. People in a swimming pool, lake, water attraction or similar body of water need not wear a mask.
Masks are not required for those "actively providing or obtaining access to religious worship," to first responders when removing a mask is necessary for a public-safety function, or to those with other job functions where wearing a mask is unsafe.
Masks are not required for those engaged in athletic activities, provided participants follow previously announced restrictions. Generally, players, coaches and spectators must not congregate within 6 feet of each other "except to the extent necessary." Otherwise, they must wear masks.
The order issued Thursday also continues the requirement that retail stores and indoor entertainment venues have no more than a 50% occupancy rate, and that restaurants, bars and breweries have 6 feet between tables, with no more than eight people seated at a table. Employees at restaurants and bars who interact with customers also are required to wear masks.
It also continues the prohibition on visitors at hospitals and long-term care facilities "except for compassionate care situations such as maternity, end-of-life, and support for persons with disabilities, as well as any other situation where the presence of a caregiver would facilitate appropriate care."
In a statement issued after the news conference, Dr. Don Williamson, president of the Alabama Hospital Association, praised the extension of the mask order.
“Over the past week, hospitals have begun to see a decline in hospitalizations due to COVID-19, clearly a result of the increased use of masks and social distancing,” he said. "... The decrease in cases we’ve experienced is evidence that masks work to save lives and can help keep businesses and schools open.”
The statewide decline in hospitalizations has also been reflected locally. Decatur Morgan Hospital had 40 confirmed or suspected COVID-19 patients the day Ivey announced the mask order and 53 on July 20. On Thursday, that number was down to 33 confirmed or suspected cases. Athens-Limestone Hospital had 15 confirmed COVID-19 patients July 20 and nine on Thursday.
The Alabama Department of Public Health on Thursday reported 668 new COVID-19 cases, below the seven-day average of new cases per day of 759. The seven-day average of new statewide cases peaked at 1,851 on July 19.
Twenty-five COVID-19 deaths were reported Thursday, bringing the statewide total to 1,990.
Morgan County added 25 new confirmed cases Thursday, Limestone added 21 and Lawrence County added five. Twenty-five Morgan County residents have died of the disease. Twenty-one Limestone County residents and five Lawrence County residents have died of COVID-19, according to ADPH data.
The successful reduction in COVID-19 numbers under the mask order convinced Ivey she needed to continue it, she said.
"We're making such good progress doing what we've been doing that we need to keep it up, especially because we're coming into a holiday weekend. The temptation to gather in crowds of more than 10 is upon us and we just need to be extra cautious," Ivey said. "It would be a whole lot harder to have to extend stronger orders than it will to continue what we've been doing, which is showing success."