Ivey extends mask mandate despite political pressure to end it
By Eric Fleischauer
For the Enquirer
Gov. Kay Ivey on Thursday extended the mask mandate through April 9 despite political pressure to end it but eased a few other COVID-19 restrictions, including limits on how many can be seated at one table in restaurants.
Ivey and State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris noted at a news conference that conditions are improving in the state, with COVID-19 hospitalizations at their lowest point since summer and new daily cases dropping from an average of about 3,000 in early January to below 1,000.
“Even with this positive news, however, Dr. Harris and I are both convinced that we need to get past Easter and hopefully allow more Alabamians to get their first shot before we take a step some other states have taken to remove the mask order altogether and lift other restrictions.”
Ivey was adamant, however, that the mask requirement would not be extended again.
“Let me be abundantly clear: After April 9, I will not keep the mask order in effect,” Ivey said. “Even when we lift the mask order, I will continue to wear my mask when I’m around others and strongly urge my fellow citizens to use common sense and do the same thing. But at that time, it will become a matter of personal responsibility and not government mandate.”
The extension comes despite political pressure within the state and the recent decisions by the governors of Texas, Mississippi and some other Republican-led states to end all or most coronavirus restrictions. The Alabama Senate on Wednesday passed a resolution urging Ivey to drop the mask mandate.
Rep. Terri Collins, R-Decatur, said she is looking forward to the mask order ending.
“I’m not saying she made a mistake. She probably has a lot more data and information than I do,” Collins said. “I will say I have been hopeful she would drop the mask mandate. … I would hope that we could let people control their own behaviors, that if you’re walking in somewhere and you’re not comfortable, that you would then leave.”
Ivey’s extension of the mask order came as numerous health officials, hospitals and doctors in the state urged her to leave the mandate in place. One of the most vocal has been Dr. Don Williamson, the former state health officer who now heads the Alabama Hospital Association.
“We are pleased. We think it gives us five more weeks to continue to try to drive down the number of cases, and at the same time five more weeks to get more people vaccinated,” Williamson said. “Importantly, it also gives us five more weeks to better understand the impact of the U.K. variant on future case counts.”
Harris said the state continues to detect more cases of the coronavirus variant first detected in the United Kingdom. While studies indicate it is more contagious, the existing COVID-19 vaccines are effective against it.
“There probably are many cases of variants that we’ve not been able to detect because we do testing for it, but we don’t do widespread, large-scale testing at this point,” Harris said.
Ivey did ease some restrictions in the renewed emergency order.
- Restaurants, bars and breweries no longer are limited to six people at a table, but still must separate tables by 6 feet or a partition.
- In hospitals and nursing homes, patients or residents can now have up to two caregivers or two visitors, up from the one previously allowed. Nursing homes are still subject to federal limitations which limit visitation and prohibit visitors if the facility has had recent cases of COVID-19.
- Senior citizen centers still are banned from having congregate meals, but other programs can resume if they are outdoors and comply with guidelines to be issued by the Alabama Department of Senior Services. All nursing homes in the state have had at least two vaccine clinics and many have had a third, according to the Alabama Nursing Home Association.
- Summer camps can resume operations this year, subject to social-distancing requirements that mirror those in schools. “I don’t know who’s going to be more excited about that, the campers or the parents,” Ivey said.
More than 1 million Alabamians have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, slightly more than 25% of all adults in the state. According to the Alabama Department of Public Health, 352,749 — less than 10 percent — of Alabamians have received both doses of the vaccine.
“We still don’t have enough vaccine for everyone who wants a shot,” Ivey said.
Harris said Alabama typically averages 51,000 to 52,000 deaths per year, but in 2020 there were 64,400 deaths. The state has identified 10,094 deaths as being caused by COVID-19 since the pandemic began, but 2,684 of those were reported in 2021.
“Remember our worst individual days for deaths weren’t even in 2020, they were in January of this year,” Harris said.
Harris said next week the state is scheduled to receive more than 100,000 Moderna and Pfizer first-dose vaccines, the most it has received in a week, and this week will receive about 40,000 doses of the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
“It’s a one-time shipment,” Harris said of the J&J vaccine. “We have been told we will not get any additional (J&J) vaccine for the next three weeks.”
Harris said he expects the state to be in a good position to end the mask mandate April 9. In addition to the people who will have been vaccinated by then, he said a half million people who are known to have contracted the disease will have some natural immunity, and others who had COVID-19 and either didn’t know it or didn’t report it will also have some immunity.
Williamson also is optimistic.
“The only thing that would change the numbers in a negative direction, I hope — keeping in mind I’ve been fooled by this virus many times — would be the U.K. variant,” he said. “If we vaccinate enough people, then you prevent the U.K. variant from becoming a problem. At some point, you have to lift the mandate because it does end up being about personal responsibility.”
Harris stressed that masks, social distancing and hand hygiene are especially important with the end of the pandemic in sight.
“We really are getting close to the end. A few more months, but we’re much closer to the end than we’ve ever been,” Harris said. “I know we’re going to get there.”