As some retailers expressed skepticism about enforcing a Decatur mask ordinance that took effect Monday, area health officials expressed concern over rapidly increasing coronavirus infections and how those numbers will strain hospital resources in coming weeks.
“It’s going to take a while for the masking policy to have an impact,” said David Spillers, CEO of the Huntsville Hospital Health System, which includes Decatur Morgan and Athens-Limestone hospitals and Lawrence Medical Center. “We didn’t have (mandatory) masking for Fourth of July; we all expect an additional increase in cases for the next couple of weeks off of the Fourth of July.”
Some Decatur businesses began enforcing the ordinance over the weekend. Others were gearing up for implementation during the day Monday.
“We’ll follow city guidelines. It’s not of our choosing. We’ll follow what they say. We have to. We have a Decatur business license,” said Charles Christopher, store manager at Martin’s Family Clothing Store.
Others were not planning to require customers to wear masks, a stance that could attract the attention of the Decatur Police Department.
“We won’t be policing our customers on wearing masks,” said Zion Shreve, Electronic Express store manager. “It’s their responsibility to wear masks and follow the ordinance. Our employees have been wearing masks for about a month and I’d say about 80% of our customers come in the store already with a mask on. … If somebody comes in without a mask, we won’t turn them away.”
Greg Ward, Holaway’s Foodland store director, also said his store will not enforce the City Council mandate.
“We’ll post notifications on the doors urging customers to wear masks as the ordinance mandates. But we know some customers won’t wear a mask,” Ward said, noting that most customers and all employees already wear face coverings. “… We’re not going to police the masks. It will be too difficult to do that.
“We don’t want to step on anybody’s toes.”
Police Chief Nate Allen said he was encouraging businesses to put up signs advising customers of the ordinance and asking that they not enter without a mask.
If a business chooses not to enforce the ordinance, Allen said police would contact the business owner.
“We want to first educate them on the ordinance, actually give them a warning on it, and tell them the repercussions that come from them not enforcing it, such as a loss of business license and something of that nature,” Allen said at a news conference Monday.
Individuals violating the ordinance will first receive information on the ordinance, then receive a formal warning and, on a third offense, will receive a citation, Allen said. The fine for those receiving citations is up to $500.
In the meantime, infections are increasing rapidly in Morgan, Lawrence and Limestone counties.
Fifty-nine Morgan County residents tested positive for COVID-19 in the 24 hours through Monday morning, according to Alabama Department of Public Health data. That was the third highest number of new cases reported in a day for Morgan County, with the highest — 69 — on Sunday. Five Morgan County residents have died from the disease, according to ADPH, and 1,397 residents have tested positive for the new coronavirus.
Decatur Morgan Hospital remained near its peak COVID-19 hospitalizations with 26 confirmed COVID-19 patients Monday, including four in intensive care and one on a ventilator. Another 10 patients were awaiting test results.
Lawrence County had 10 new cases reported Monday, second only to Sunday when ADPH reported 11 newly confirmed cases among Lawrence County residents.
ADPH on Monday reported 26 new COVID-19 cases among Limestone County residents, bringing that county's total to 665. Three Limestone County residents have been confirmed by ADPH as having died from the disease, and a fourth death believed to be caused by the disease is under evaluation.
Statewide, 1,860 new positive coronavirus tests were reported Monday, the second highest since the pandemic began, bringing the total to 54,768. The highest one-day count for the state came Thursday, when 2,164 new cases were reported. Three new COVID-19 deaths were reported Monday, bringing the number of confirmed COVID-19 deaths in the state to 1,096.
Judy Smith, administrator of the Alabama Department of Public Health’s Northern District, said the increasing numbers are a serious concern.
“We’re going the wrong way on a one-way street,” Smith said Monday. “We really had hoped that Fourth of July weekend and the continued opening up would not have the impact that it did. But it looks like it’s going to be pretty devastating. There’s nothing we can do about that now except learn from that experience and hope it doesn’t happen again.”
Smith said ADPH notifies first responders of homes known to have residents with active coronavirus infections, so they know to use personal protective equipment if responding to a call. As of Monday, she said, there were about 600 such homes in Morgan County.
Smith said she was worried about the increasing number of COVID-19 hospitalizations.
“We’re not in dire straits right now, but if we don’t do something we could be in dire straits,” Smith said.
She said she expects the Decatur mask ordinance passed last week by the City Council and signed by the mayor to help reduce hospitalizations.
“It was a tremendously tough decision. There are more tough decisions to come, but I commend this city for doing what it could do to take care of the people in this city,” Smith said.
Spillers said the uptick in cases throughout the Huntsville Health System and the state is causing problems, and he expects those problems to worsen as some of the recently infected people need hospitalization.
He said COVID-19 patients require more staffing than other patients, and that’s increasingly challenging because many hospital workers throughout the system must stay home because they’ve tested positive or have been exposed to the virus and are awaiting test results. He also worries that supplies of remdesivir, a drug he said has shown some success with COVID-19 patients, will fall short.
“The issue with COVID patients … is they consume a lot of resources,” Spillers said. “They consume additional staffing. As this grows in the community, we’re going to have more staff that are out sick. At some point, it’s going to impact people’s ability to get into the system for other things that might happen. People are still having heart attacks and car wrecks and strokes and all these other health care issues, and they need to be able to get into the hospital to get health care.”