Gov. Kay Ivey this morning announced an emergency order requiring masks to be worn in public by those interacting within 6 feet of people of different households.
The order takes effect in Alabama on Thursday at 5 p.m. and, if not extended, expires July 31 at 5 p.m. It replaces all local ordinances requiring masks, including one that took effect this week in Decatur. Ivey said violation of the ordinance could result in a maximum $500 fine and jail time, although she said aggressive enforcement is not expected.
The announcement came as a seventh Morgan County resident was reported as having died of COVID-19 and the daily tally of positive tests in the county rose by 60, and on a day when the state recorded a record number of deaths and hospitalizations from the disease.
Ivey said hospital intensive care units could soon be overwhelmed.
At a news conference two weeks ago, Ivey resisted a mask order because she said it would be difficult to enforce.
"I still believe this is going to be a difficult order to enforce, and I always prefer personal responsibility over a government mandate," Ivey said today. "And yet I also know, with all my heart, that the numbers and data over the past few weeks are definitely trending in the wrong direction."
State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris said the state set a record high in new cases Tuesday, with more than 2,100.
The state reported 47 new COVID-19 deaths today, the highest since the pandemic began. The second highest, 40, was Tuesday. It also reported 1,477 COVID-19 patients were in hospitals this morning, a record high for the state.
"There are about 30 hospitals in the state now that have either very limited or no ICU capacity at all," Harris said, and only about 12% of ICU beds are available statewide.
Harris said increasing daily counts of confirmed COVID-19 cases are not merely a reflection of more testing, because the percent of positive tests continues to increase. He said preliminary results indicate that 16-17% of all tests are coming back positive.
"Clearly we have more disease circulating in our community," he said. "... Alabama is not headed in the right direction. I believe this mask ordinance is the right thing to do because it will prevent disease transmission. We really don't have a lot of other options at this time."
The order requires 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:
• An indoor space open to the general public;
• A vehicle operated by a transportation service; and
• An outdoor space 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 need not wear a mask while obtaining a service, such as medical or dental procedures, that requires removal of a mask, or when they must have their face visible to confirm their identity for security purposes.
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.
"Throughout this process I have said that I reserve the right to come back and reverse course," Ivey said. "This mask mandate is the first step of doing just that. Clearly there are some other more restrictive actions that we could take — such as closing things back down — but I don't want to go there unless there are absolutely no other options available."
She called on businesses and municipalities to help the state enforce the ordinance.
"We're certainly not asking our sheriffs and police officers to go out looking for people who are not wearing a mask and arrest them, but we are asking everyone to do a better job practicing social distancing, personal hygiene and wearing face masks," she said.
Harris said he's frequently asked whether the economy needs to be shut down.
"The answer is no, not if people will cooperate with the orders that we have in place. Face coverings or masks will prevent disease transmission. We don't have an effective vaccine. We don't have highly effective treatment. We don't have really many other options at all, but we do have the ability to try to keep person-to-person spread from occurring," Harris said.
Not all Ivey's GOP colleagues supported the order.
Lt. Gov. Will Ainsworth issued a statement encouraging people to wear masks, but adding that the statewide order "is an overstep that infringes upon the property rights of business owners and the ability of individuals to make their own health decisions."
Read more in Thursday's edition of The Decatur Daily.