Gov. Kay Ivey on Tuesday said Alabama's stay-at-home order will not be lifted before its April 30 expiration, despite proposals by a Decatur lawmaker and many in the business community, and she suggested some version of the order will remain in place after that.
“The stay-at-home order is in place at least through April 30 at this point. Before we can fully open and get fully operational, we’ve got to increase our testing capacity,” Ivey said at a press conference Tuesday. “All of the decisions that I’m going to make are based on data, not a desired date.”
And even as State Health Officer Scott Harris said at the morning press conference his optimism was increasing because new confirmed infections in the state had recently been staying below 200 per day, they climbed by 249 Tuesday to 5,327.
As of Tuesday, less than 1% of the state’s population had been tested for COVID-19, according to Alabama Department of Public Health data.
“We’ve got to have more than less-than-1% of our population tested, that’s for sure,” Ivey said.
Ivey and Harris, formerly of Decatur, focused on the importance of seeing a declining rate of confirmed COVID-19 cases for a period of about two weeks. Harris said the daily number of new cases, once consistently over 200, has for the last few days been hovering around 160 to 170, a trend broken later that day.
“They’ve leveled off at that point and we think maybe this is the inflection point on the curve that we’re looking for. We still probably need to look at data for another few days to know for certain,” Harris said.
Ivey said it’s imperative the decline be consistent, and she seemed to indicate she would not lift the stay-at-home order until it is.
“We’ve got to lower this COVID-19 rate. It’s got to start declining more than it is, and it needs to do that over a period of 10-14 days,” she said. Asked if she would strictly adhere to that as a benchmark for easing economic restrictions, she said, “I plan to.”
Harris also stressed the need for ADPH to have adequate contact tracing abilities before the stay-at-home order is lifted. Contact tracing is the process by which health workers determine who has been in contact with a person who tests positive for the coronavirus, so those exposed people can be tested and isolated.
“We need to be able to get to an area where we have multiple cases reported, to get those people tested as quickly as possible and do contact tracing on those people as quickly as possible,” he said.
Assistant State Health Officer Dr. Karen Landers on Tuesday said the ADPH had about 20 employees available for contact tracing before the outbreak began, and has increased that number to 120 by pulling them from other divisions such as tuberculosis control, immunization, HIV and sexually-transmitted diseases.
“However, as these employees need to return to their primary work focus, it will be necessary to maintain and increase the numbers of persons involved in contact tracing. ADPH is working toward using medical students, public health students, and pre-health students as part of its contact tracing workforce moving forward,” Landers said.
While Harris and Ivey agreed testing is inadequate, neither suggested a benchmark as to how pervasive testing must be before the stay-at-home order is lifted.
One factor Harris said should be met before reopening the economy is that hospitals must be capable of handling both COVID-19 patients and other patients.
“We have reached the period where we thought we may have a hospital surge, and that surge has been contained within our hospitals; we’re very happy about that,” he said. “As people have stayed home and stayed away from others who are sick, we’ve seen numbers improve in a way that we’re very pleased with. That makes us feel a lot more confident going forward as we make decisions about what to do next.”
Whenever the stay-at-home order is lifted, Ivey indicated it will be replaced by a less restrictive order.
“Getting our economy back up and running is not as simple as flipping a switch,” she said. “… We’ll have a very definite and specific timetable of what, when and how businesses can open. We’ll do that as soon as we can.”
Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp on Monday announced that state will allow many businesses — including hair salons and bowling alleys — to reopen Friday, and restaurants and movie theaters will be able to reopen Monday. Ivey said she talked with Kemp and the governors of other Southeast states over the weekend, and she noted they also were struggling with inadequate testing capacity.
“Until we get enough testing done, we can’t fully reopen the economy,” Ivey said. “… Some states are opening sooner than others, but every governor is responsible for reading the numbers and doing what they think is best for their state.”
State Sen Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, said he had hoped Ivey and Harris would begin relaxing the stay-at-home order before April 30. He sent a letter to them April 10 suggesting a step-by-step reopening focused on maintaining social distancing while allowing non-essential businesses to open, and he also recommended a resumption of elective procedures at hospitals.
He said he also recommended a regional approach, where areas that are not hot spots for the virus could open more quickly.
“Here in Morgan County, the number of cases that we’ve had have been relatively few as far as those being hospitalized. In these areas where there’s been low impact, allow them to start the (reopening) process. In other areas, you may have to keep the status quo,” Orr said.
He said he had hoped several of his recommendations could be implemented before April 30.
“But she and Dr. Harris are in charge, and it will be their decision to make,” Orr said Tuesday.
He said people now understand social distancing and other mitigation steps.
“People are now familiar enough with what the rules of the road are that, if we had to revert back and up the intensity of the health order, then there wouldn’t be a learning curve. It would be very well understood,” Orr said.
He said he’s worried about the impact of the stay-at-home order on small businesses statewide, and particularly in Morgan County.
“I suspect some will have folded, and particularly the restaurants,” he said, by the time the order is lifted. “The small mom-and-pop type businesses, going three or four weeks with zero revenue. Yes, I expect there will be some business failures as a result.”
Orr stressed, however, that Harris and Ivey are facing a difficult situation.
“I have no criticism of the decisions that have been made,” he said. “She and Dr. Harris have a lot of information they’re considering.”
Ivey said she’s anxious to get the economy back in gear, but only when it can be done safely.
“No one wants to open up businesses more than I do,” Ivey said. "... It's been a challenging month. We've said goodbye to too many of our loved ones, and our way of life has been turned upside down."
In Decatur, Mayor Tab Bowling on Tuesday said beginning today he will change from a modified staffing plan back to normal work hours, with employees who have been working from home returning to City Hall. He said he is instructing employees to stay 6 feet away from each other and to wear a mask when meeting with the public or leaving their offices.
While the Police Department will remain open to the public, the rest of City Hall will be open only by appointment.
Anita Walden, chief nursing officer at Decatur Morgan Hospital, on Monday said she fears the consequences of a premature end to social distancing.
She said lifting restrictions because the rate-of-infection curve is beginning to flatten is like saying, “the parachute has slowed our rate of descent so we can take it off now. … To stay safe and not allow any more spread of COVID-19, we must wear masks when we’re out. We must keep social distancing, a separation of 6 feet between us, and we must do more testing.”