Back in business
New health order brings relief for retailers
By Eric Fleischauer and Rebekah Martin
Retail stores closed since March were permitted to reopen Thursday at 5 p.m. under a narrower health order issued April 28, but restaurant dining rooms, barbershops, gyms and numerous other businesses continue to be restricted as the state seeks to avoid a spike in COVID-19 cases.
The newest order by State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris expires May 15 at 5 p.m. Violation of the order is a misdemeanor punishable by a $500 fine.
“While we have not seen a decrease in the amount of newly diagnosed COVID-19 patients, we have seen stabilization, a leveling off if you will, in the amount of cases,” said Gov. Kay Ivey in announcing the revised order, which replaces an April 4 order that expired April 30 at 5 p.m.
The announcement came on a day when COVID-19 deaths in the state climbed by 14 to 242, new cases climbed by 211 to 6,750 and hospitalizations increased by 39 to a cumulative total of 927. Morgan County cases increased the same day from 65 to 68; Limestone cases increased by two to 44; and Lawrence County cases held steady at 12.
In addition to reopening retail stores, the new order allows elective medical and dental procedures to resume and beaches to open.
While retail stores were allowed to open under the order, they must limit their occupancy to 50 percent of normal occupancy load as determined by the fire marshal, a number they must post in a conspicuous place. They also may not “knowingly allow customers or patrons to congregate within 6 feet of one another.”
Kalleigh Thomas, of Shoefisticated in downtown Hartselle, opened her doors to the public May 1 after a month of being closed, and she said her business had to adjust to the new normal in more ways than one.
Thomas said without being forced to, she might not have joined the online world as swiftly as she did when she had to resort to Instagram and Facebook to sell her merchandise.
“For 10 years we’ve been strictly brick and mortar … and our customers have been very loyal,” she said. “The day we were forced to close, and the weeks after, I had customers calling and texting me out of concern … That speaks volumes about the people in the community and how they care about local businesses.”
Thomas said the shutdown has actually been a blessing in disguise for her business; she will launch her website, www.shoefisticated.com, by the end of the month.
“We’ve definitely missed those walk-in sales,” she said. “They make up 90 percent of our sales … Had this happened at Christmas time, that would have been such a blow to all of us.”
Thomas said she and her staff will continue to take common sense precautions to protect their patrons by allowing customers in the store at a time and using sanitizer between customers.
Thomas said when the stay at home order was first issued, she worried for her business and others like her in Hartselle.
“I was very concerned for the livelihood of my small business, as well as the other small businesses that serve our wonderful community,” she said. “The fact that the mom and pop shops were not deemed essential was disheartening and upsetting, because so many of us rely on that revenue to support our families. Even though this crisis forced me to explore other ways to successfully reach my customers that will ultimately prove to be beneficial in the future, I still believe that we should have been given the choice to stay at home or work.”
“I feel as though our government has set a precedent for future crisis, leaving me with an uneasy feeling that small businesses could potentially face something like this again in the future,” she added.
Brianna Frizzell, of BeFrizz customization shop, said her business has been as busy as ever during the shutdown because of her social media presence.
“We have a prominent online presence through Facebook, so that has been a really good thing for us,” said Frizzell, whose husband was laid off because of the shutdown. “I know we are absolutely the exception … and I couldn’t be more thankful.”
A primary reason Harris gave for the March 28 order closing non-essential businesses, followed by the April 4 stay-at-home order, is that people with no symptoms can spread the virus to others. While 80 percent of those infected have mild symptoms or no symptoms at all, the elderly and people with chronic health conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure, compromised immune systems and heart disease are more likely to develop serious complications.
Also getting relief under the new order are beaches, which have been permitted to reopen with continued social distancing restrictions in place. People using the beach, if they are not from the same household, must maintain a consistent 6-foot separation from each other.
The previous order required people to remain at home except to meet basic needs, a requirement that ends with the new order.
The new order includes strict quarantine rules that took effect Tuesday. Anyone who tests positive for COVID-19 must remain quarantined for 14 days after receiving the test result.
“Any person quarantined … shall not leave their place of residence for any reason other than to seek necessary medical treatment,” according to the order.
Employers are required to take “reasonable steps, where practicable as work duties permit” to avoid gatherings of 10 or more employees, to maintain 6-foot distancing, to regularly disinfect surfaces and to keep sick employees from coming into contact with others.
Both Ivey and Harris urged people to wear masks so they don’t inadvertently spread the disease to others.
“You’ll be urged to wear face coverings around people from other households when you leave your house,” Ivey said. “No one’s going to arrest you if you don’t, but it’s just good, sound medical advice, and it’s for your safety as well as the safety of those with whom you come in contact.”
Restaurants, bars and breweries remain restricted to take-out, curbside and deliveries.
Non-work gatherings of more than 10 people, and gatherings of any size in which 6-foot distancing can’t be maintained, are still prohibited under the new order. The order explicitly prohibits such gatherings at church services, weddings, funerals, concerts, festivals and sporting events.
Drive-in church services are allowed, provided that: participants remain in their vehicles; only members of the same household are in each vehicle; and participants stay 6 feet away from anyone in other vehicles.
Close-contact service providers remain closed under the new order. This includes barbershops, hair salons, nail salons, tattoo services and massage therapy establishments.
Entertainment venues — such as bowling alleys, night clubs, movie theaters, performing arts centers, racetracks and museums — also remain closed under the new order.
Fitness centers and gyms remain closed, as do spas and yoga facilities. Sports involving distances between players of less than 6 feet or sharing of equipment are prohibited, and the use of public playground equipment is banned.
“The threat of COVID-19 is not over,” Ivey said. “We’re still seeing the virus spread, and all of our people are susceptible to the infection. The greatest disservice … is to think that by lifting the comprehensive health restrictions, that this must be a sign that there’s no longer a threat of COVID-19. Folks, we must continue to be vigilant in our social distancing, both today and for the foreseeable future.”
Harris cited some concerns going forward. For one, he said it is an ongoing challenge to get enough testing materials, and testing in rural areas has been a particular problem.
Contact tracing also is a challenge, he said.
“With the 6,500 or so people that have been diagnosed so far, we have contacted all of them, and we attempt to learn from them who lives at home with them and what type of workplace they’re in, and in many cases we have to contact the workplace in case there are other exposures. You can imagine that this is an enormous task because every person might have dozens or scores of contacts that need to be traced,” Harris said.
He said the Alabama Department of Public Health has 50-60 people involved in COVID-19 contact tracing, plus some volunteers from medical schools and schools of public health. He said the ADPH is looking for ways to increase that number.
“We have a lot of concerns about that,” he said. “We’ll probably be able to manage our workload with a certain amount of capacity, but we might see an occasional outbreak – if you have a nursing home, for example, or a workplace infection like we’ve seen recently, and then you might need to add the additional capacity, like on a contract basis.”
Harris, formerly of Decatur, said the state has not met federal guidelines for a complete reopening of the economy because new COVID-19 cases have been steady at about 200 per day, rather than decreasing for 14 days.
Government offices and businesses are required under the order to take reasonable steps to avoid gatherings of 10 or more people, to maintain 6 feet of separation between people and to regularly disinfect surfaces.