Masks off in T-Town?

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Publix and Walmart, among other stores, in T-Town had new signage about mask wearing. One such notice said that “Fully vaccinated people are no longer required to wear face coverings. If you’re not fully vaccinated, help protect others by continuing to wear a face covering over your nose and mouth.” Such requests were in line with the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines.

A staff report in the Tuscaloosa News reported that the University of Alabama had “modified some of the COVID-19 restrictions for summer commencement ceremonies.” Masks would no longer be required for fully vaccinated attendees. The university had not as yet mandated that its students be vaccinated so it would be highly probable that many unvaccinated graduating students would be complying by wearing masks.

As far as schools that require vaccinations are concerned, all colleges in Illinois could be added to the over 530 schools that will mandate that students will be vaccinated. NBC/5 reported that the mandated vaccinations were “in line with recommendations by the American College Health Association and follows vaccine mandates introduced at other Illinois higher education institutions including DePaul University, Northwestern University and the University of Chicago.”

University Business published a list of schools that mandated vaccinations (as of June 23, 2021).

Cecilia Smith-Schoenwalder wrote in US News and World Report that “Vaccination rates have slowed among U.S. populations since mid-April, with the lowest coverage reported among young adults, according to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”

CNN‘s Madeline Holcombe reported that people who had not been vaccinated were of higher risk of dying from Covid-19. She wrote:

Those still dying from Covid-19 in the US are “overwhelmingly” unvaccinated, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Dr. Anthony Fauci told CNN’s Jake Tapper.

Fauci said he thinks a return to the high virus surges of 2020 is unlikely, but communities continuing to hold out against vaccination could experience localized surges as the summer continues.

Claudia Yaw reported in The Chronicle about a county in Washington state where fully vaccinated governmental staff members had been allowed to not wear masks. The employees were required to have proof of vaccination. The policy was in line with new Washington state Department of Labor and Industries guidance. “Proof of vaccination will be required from employees, although the county will not retain a copy of that medical document. Fully-vaccinated members of the public who remove their masks will not be asked for vaccination proof.”

City Hall in Tuscaloosa, unlike many stores in T-Town and the University of Alabama, had been complying only with state guidelines on mask wearing, which were not in alignment with CDC guidelines. The state’s mask mandate expired April 9, 2021. Alabama‘s latest COVID-19 public health order encouraged but did not require residents to wear masks when within 6 feet of someone from another household. Only a few Council members have acknowledged that they are fully vaccinated.

The 2021 college football season was scheduled to begin by the end of summer. There was no indication that Bryant-Denny Stadium‘s over 100,000 fans would have similar mask restrictions as those of the university’s summer commencement.

Alabama was 49th in the nation in vaccinations. Only Mississippi had fewer people who were fully vaccinated. The fact that Vietnamese immigrants are the most vaccinated people in Alabama was reported by AL.com‘s Sarah Whites-Koditschek. While 34% of Alabamians were fully vaccinated, 90% in the Vietnamese community living on the Gulf of Mexico had received vaccinations.

Some people in T-Town doubtlessly wished that more Crimson Tide fans were Vietnamese.

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Barricading the Square

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The City of Tuscaloosa came up with an idea on how to curtail violence in a downtown area called Temerson Square. During the pilot program, called “Summer In The Square,” city staff manned barricades would be be set up to close the area to vehicular traffic. The Tuscaloosa NewsJason Morton reported:

Following a shooting and a fatal hit-and-run in Temerson Square this spring, city officials vowed to take action in an attempt to quell any future violence.

[Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt] Maddox said Tuscaloosa Chief Brent Blankley has expressed concerns over motorists driving into, through or parking within Temerson Square and ‘causing problems.’

The barricading of the square from 11 p.m. until 3 a.m. on the night of June 17, June 18 and June 19 coincided with the first concert of the season at the nearby Tuscaloosa Amphitheater on June 17th.

Ryan Phillips in The Patch wrote that “future tests could see the incorporation of bollards, which are metal or concrete barriers that can be used to temporarily block roadways.”

On May 11, 2021, Tuscaloosa city council member Lee Busby led a discussion on Bar Safety during a Special Called Council Public Safety meeting.

Busby said that there had been a “rash of incidents” at Temerson Square and “chaos” on The Strip. The area that has had the most problems with violence contains 40 bars.

He said that he had been discussing the situation with bar owners but this meeting was the “first migration of the discussion into the public arena.”

Among the things that had been discussed were the possibility of having more physical police presence in the area, allowing bars to hire off-duty uniformed Tuscaloosa Police Department officers for security, and changing the operating hours for the bars. Bars were allowed to stay open until 3am on Saturday nights and 2am during the rest of the week.

City attorney Scott Holmes said that there were liability issues involved in the use of uniformed TPD officers for security in bars.

There were concerns about parking resulting in a spillover into residential areas. Many incidents involving guns haven’t occurred in the bars. People have returned to their vehicles to access weapons after arguments have started at the bars.

Busby said that the type of musicians who are booked at bars might be problematic. He said that there seemed to be a “flash mob mentality” involving bars.

Busby said that an inordinate use of police resources in the bar intensive areas deprived other parts of town.

He said that the City Council approved the liquor licenses of bars but revoking a business license because of problems was much harder and could involve an appeal in court.

To many, barricading the Square or The Strip with bollards to make T-Town‘s “Entertainment District” safer might have seemed like a work around to avoid more effective measures.

Was the city so impotent that it could not regulate operating hours or the density of bars in violence prone areas? Apparently the city’s legal staff was hamstrung. The lack of local authority could be traced to the state constitution of Alabama.

Tom Spencer of The Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama wrote that “the heavy involvement of state legislators in local affairs tends to create confusion about who is responsible for decision-making.”

Instead of being able to dampen down violence by regulating how bars were allowed to operate, in T-Town the first response had been to man the barricades.

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Covid Memorial Day 2021

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In February, 2021 the death toll from Covid-19 of over 500,000 in the United States was compared to all of the Americans killed in World War II, Korea and Vietnam combined. An Associated Press (AP) article said, “The U.S. recorded an estimated 405,000 deaths in World War II, 58,000 in the Vietnam War and 36,000 in the Korean War.” When this FSB post was written on Memorial Day 2021, 594,000 lives in the United States had been lost to Covid-19.

USAToday‘s Steven Vargas and Elinor Aspegren reported that for the holiday that “restrictions have been lifted at the nation’s cemeteries dedicated to veterans for vaccinated individuals.”

But many concerns about the impact of Covid-19 on the 2021 Memorial Day holiday had been expressed.

An USAToday article by Elinor Aspegren and Ryan W. Miller included this warning.

With coronavirus cases dropping and 50% of American adults fully vaccinated, Memorial Day weekend figures to be a test of whether the U.S. can avoid the spikes in infections and hospitalizations that occurred amid, and after, the winter holidays before vaccines were widely available. 

Suzanne Judd, epidemiologist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Public Health was interviewed by Yahoo!Finance. Judd said that by June 10th any consequences from the Memorial Day holiday would become evident.

That is the day. That’s where we’re going to know what happens from all these people getting together. If cases stay where they are– flat or decrease– that will tell us that we’re in good shape, that we may be nearing the end of this pandemic. The other alternative is that people aren’t jumping out of their houses to break out of the isolation they’ve been in. And I doubt that’s going to be the case, just given what we’re seeing already. People are starting to mix more. They’re going out. They’re going out to eat. And we know it’s a holiday weekend.

Dr. Karen Landers, assistant state health officer in the Alabama Department of Public Health, bemoaned the lack of vaccinations in Alabama in an AP article. Landers said that, with only 28% of Alabamians fully vaccinated, “It’s very distressing because we have vaccine and we have it in every corner of Alabama.”

A Washington Post article by Dan Keating and Leslie Shapiro was reprinted by several newspapers, including The Day. Keating and Shapiro wrote, “The country’s declining COVID-19 case rates present an unrealistically optimistic perspective for half of the nation – the half that is still not vaccinated.”

The Washington Post reporters said that the “rosy national figures showing declining case numbers” were misleading. They wrote:

The adjusted rates in several states show the pandemic is spreading as fast among the unvaccinated as it did during the winter surge. Maine, Colorado, Rhode Island and Washington state all have covid-19 case spikes among the unvaccinated, with adjusted rates about double the adjusted national rate. The adjusted rates of Wyoming, West Virginia, Oregon, Florida, Michigan and Pennsylvania are slightly lower than the highest states.

They wrote that vaccines were about 90% effective in preventing cases among people who have received the shot but there had been a steady Covid-19 death rate among un-vaccinated people.

UniversityBusiness‘s Chris Burt reported about a new study from Seton Hall University about the concerns of college football fans about reopening stadiums at full capacity. Burt wrote that the University of Alabama was “among a confident group of institutions that have promised full capacity for athletic events in the fall.”

Burt added “in the states where they plan to host football games at their sizable stadiums – with upwards of 100,000 guests – none has more than 35% of their populations fully vaccinated against COVID-19.”

A majority of the fans who participated in the study favored policies that include COVID-19 vaccination for entry. Social distancing, masking, and limiting attendance, as well as vaccination, would be considered necessary for a safe college football experience for fans.

During the college softball NCAA regional and super-regional games in May, 2021, at the University of Alabama‘s Rhoads Stadium the stadium was packed with 4,000 wildly cheering, unmasked fans. During the 2021 SEC Tournament, which had been held a week earlier, the stadium was at only 50% capacity, as reported by Bama Central’s Tyler Martin.

Of course, a full capacity at Bryant-Denny Stadium would involve over 100,000 fans. By the time of the new football season in September, there should be little likelihood of having a significant number of fully vaccinated people in the state of Alabama. Of course fans will come from far and wide. Also vaccinations for students at the the university will not have been mandated.

An article in The Conservation by Sanjay Mishra was not optimistic about the efficiency of vaccinations in preventing the spread of Covid-19:

  • Vaccines can be great at preventing you from getting sick, while at the same time not necessarily stopping you from getting infected or spreading the germ.
  • Preliminary evidence seems to suggest the COVID-19 vaccines make it less likely someone who’s vaccinated will transmit the coronavirus, but the proof is not yet ironclad.
  • Unvaccinated people should still be diligent about mask-wearing, physical distancing and other precautions against the coronavirus.

Even if Mishra had been wrong about vaccinations, by the fall there should be a huge influx into T-Town of un-vaccinated people who will join its vaccine hesitant residents. Some may have felt that, since they have been vaccinated, any consequences of having huge numbers of un-vaccinated people in T-Town is not their concern. No matter what the aftermath of the Memorial Day weekend in May had been, the fall might be a time even more potentially fraught with the spreading of Covid-19.

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Let me see your ID?

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Ken Roberts had reported in the Tuscaloosa News that the University of Alabama had lifted face mask requirements for students, faculty and staff who are fully vaccinated against the coronavirus. Roberts wrote:

All unvaccinated faculty, staff and students will still be required to wear face coverings inside all university buildings, according to UA’s announcement. Physical distancing of at least 3 feet will still be required.

There would be a record of anyone who had been vaccinated at the University Medical Center, but anyone getting vaccinations by other providers would need to report it to the university. The university had posted its latest status.

Other schools, such as Tulane, were trying incentives for vaccinations. Nola.com‘s Della Hasselle reported:

Tulane University, New Orleans’ largest private employer, is upping the game to convince workers to get vaccinated against COVID-19 by offering a $500 cash bonus to any full-time faculty or staff member who gets the vaccine by July 31.

Not long after the university’s announcement, Alabama‘s Governor Kay Ivy signed “legislation banning private business and public entities, including schools, from requiring proof of COVID vaccination to provide services,” as reported by the Montgomery Advertiser‘s Brian Lyman.

The idea of a “vaccine passport” was soundly rejected by most Alabama legislators. In his article, Lyman included the latest information on Alabama‘s rate of vaccinations:

The state still trails the rest of the country in COVID-19 vaccinations, despite pushed by Ivey and other officials. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says 36% of Alabamians 18 and older have received at least one shot, compared to 49% nationwide. About 76% of adults 65 and older have received one shot, compared to 85% nationwide.

Axio‘s Margaret Talev wrote about a recent poll about the lack of trust that most American’s had in the honesty of others about their vaccination status. She reported:

Americans are taking off their masks…despite significant distrust over strangers’ honesty about their COVID-19 vaccination status and amid major confusion over Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance on mask use and social distancing for those vaccinated.

According to CBS/42, Alabama State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris was concerned about the consequences of people not having been vaccinated during the Memorial Day weekend. CBS/42 reported:

Despite the availability, Alabama lags behind other states in fully vaccinating its residents. According to the latest numbers from the Alabama Department of Public Health, just over 1.3 million Alabamians are fully vaccinated.

Meanwhile, Gov. Kay Ivey has ended the statewide mask mandate and just signed a law that prevents someone from having to show proof of vaccination or a so-called “vaccine passport.”

While Harris said he supports Ivey’s decisions, he knows that with the upcoming holiday weekend, people will be flocking together to celebrate.

“I think we’re asking Alabamians to please be responsible and do the right thing. I think most people will do that and we can expect there’s some people who won’t want to do that,” he said.

Short of some kind of vaccine passport, residents of Alabama would have to accept whether other people have been vaccinated on a “good faith” basis. In T-Town, there had been widespread use of fake IDs, even when there were significant penalties involved. With no penalties at all involved with someone lying about their vaccination status, people might be well concerned about whether someone who is not wearing a mask is among the 4.9 million Alabamians who are not fully vaccinated.

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You can talk about “herd immunity” until the cows come home

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It was widely reported that Alabama‘s State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris predicted that Alabama could reach “herd immunity” during the summer. WFSA/12‘s Lydia Nusbaum wrote:

Harris said Alabama could reach herd immunity by the summer depending on several factors. It depends on whether the state has the same level of vaccination as April and whether different variants continue to spread.

But there was a “catch.” The state really didn’t know what percentage of the population would have to be fully vaccinated to arrive at herd immunity.

The University of Alabama Birmingham‘s Dr. Suzanne Judd was quoted by Lauren Walsh in a ABC33/40 News report. Walsh wrote that “Dr. Judd stressed vaccinations are still important. We do not know how long immunity lasts for those who have had COVID.” Furthermore Walsh reported that Dr. Judd said that “vaccinating children will be critical for Alabama to reach herd immunity.”

Walsh wrote:

“If we count the people who have never had a positive test but have some level of immunity, then we would have reached herd immunity somewhere around May or June,” Dr. Judd said. “And we probably have, just looking at the fact that the cases are decreasing the way they are. The problem with only using that model is that those people may have- their immunity may fade.”

The duration of immunity for those who have had a Covid-19 infection is uncertain. And there have been cases of re-infection, according to Dr. Harris.

CNN‘s Holly Yan reported that “young adults are now steering the course of this pandemic as the biggest spreaders of coronavirus.” Yan wrote that “36% of young adults under age 35 say they don’t plan on getting a Covid-19 vaccine.” Without the vaccination of young adults herd immunity was considered to be unlikely.

The Montgomery Advertiser‘s Melissa Brown wrote that Alabama‘s Governor Kay Ivy had announced that the state’s coronavirus pandemic public health order and state of emergency would expire on July 6, 2021.

At the same time Al.com‘s Ramsey Archibald reported that Alabama could lose its unused doses of Covid-19 vaccine because of new guidelines from the federal government. Unused COVID-19 vaccine doses would be moved away from states with low demand into other areas. Archibald wrote:

Alabama had the nation’s second lowest vaccination rate, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Less than 33 percent of Alabama’s population had gotten at least one dose of a vaccine.

The Hill‘s Alexandra Kelley reported that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) attributed increasing new infections to new Covid variants. The CDC had concluded that a “best-case scenario” for controlling Covid-19 would involve high rates of vaccination and “compliance with [nonpharmaceutical interventions].” Kelley wrote:

Speaking to CNBC, Peter Hotez, the co-director of the Center for Vaccine Development at Texas Children’s Hospital, said that the U.S. needs to have 75 to 80 percent of all Americans vaccinated to see pre-pandemic normalcy.

“We can vaccinate our way out of this epidemic if all the adults and adolescents get vaccinated by summer,” he said. 

The CDC‘s May 5, 2021 Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) said:

The rapid rollout of vaccination is having a positive impact on the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States and reported disease nationally during April has been on the lower end of the scenario projections to date. However, multiple jurisdictions have seen a resurgence of COVID-19 cases and others likely will if NPI adherence declines too rapidly. Increases in deaths and hospitalizations could be more moderate because of prioritization of vaccination groups at high risk for COVID-19 but are still expected, particularly in locations with pronounced increases in transmission earlier during the vaccine rollout. These modeled scenarios show that ongoing efforts to continue to increase vaccination coverage and maintain physical distancing, masking, isolation, and quarantine are warranted. As the COVID-19 pandemic evolves and more data become available regarding factors affecting outbreak dynamics, future projections from the COVID-19 Scenario Modeling Hub can provide new and improved insights for public health response.

The idea that “herd immunity” would be possible under any conditions was disputed by many experts.

USAToday‘s Elizabeth Weise wrote an article “Is herd immunity to COVID-19 possible? Experts increasingly say no.” She reported:

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease doctor, doesn’t want to talk about herd immunity anymore.

“Rather than concentrating on an elusive number, let’s get as many people vaccinated as quickly as we possibly can,” he said at a White House briefing last week, a sentiment he’s since repeated.

What Fauci doesn’t explicitly state, but others do, is that with about a quarter of Americans saying they might not want to be immunized, herd immunity is simply not an attainable goal.   

“It’s theoretically possible but we as a society have rejected that,” said Dr. Gregory Poland, director of the Mayo Clinic’s Vaccine Research Group. “There is no eradication at this point, it’s off the table. The only thing we can talk about is control.”

With COVID-19, where vaccines are effective but won’t last a lifetime, vaccine hesitancy makes that kind of widespread protection unlikely, experts say.

That means people who can’t get vaccinated or whose immune systems are dampened by medication or disease will remain vulnerable. There will probably always be enough unvaccinated people to allow COVID-19 to spread once it arrives in a community.

Because of political attitudes towards vaccination, Weise wrote, “America could end up looking like a patchwork quilt, with areas where COVID-19 infections are low and others where the virus continues to thrive. The dangers of contracting COVID-19 are considerable. Among unvaccinated people who’ve tested positive for COVID-19, about 20% will end up with severe disease, 5% will end up in intensive care and between 1% to 2% will die, according to CDC data.”

US News & World Report‘s Cecelia Smith-Schoenwalder wrote that “the growing number of Americans protected from COVID-19 has returned focus to the idea of ‘herd immunity’ – a term some experts want to cast aside.”

Smith-Schoenwalder said that the problem of “vaccine hesitancy” complicated matters. She wrote that the Kaiser Family Foundation’s Vaccine Monitor had said that the “public’s enthusiasm for getting the shot may have reached a plateau.” She reported:

With cases, hospitalizations and deaths on the decline and over 40% of adults fully vaccinated, attention has returned to herd immunity – a concept that some experts would like to cast aside.

Herd immunity – or the point when enough people are protected from the virus that it cannot find new hosts to infect – has been a “counterproductive” term that has been “taken out of context by people who don’t understand the ins and outs of disease,” says Theo Vos of the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.

Many universities and colleges were mandating that their students have Covid vaccinations before they returned to campus. Andy Thomason  and Brian O’Leary in The Chronicle of Higher Education listed 228 schools that mandated student vaccinations.

Harvard University is among them. NBC/10‘s Kaitlin McKinley Becker reported:

Harvard President Lawrence S. Bacow said in a message to the school community Wednesday that students should plan to be fully vaccinated before returning to campus for the fall semester — meaning that at least two weeks have passed since receiving the final dose.

In a joint message with Harvard’s provost, executive vice president and the health services executive director, Bacow said students are being required to get vaccinated against the virus in order to reach the high levels of vaccination needed to protect the school community as Harvard hopes to be able to offer a less restricted, robust on-campus experience for all students this fall.

Unfortunately many schools throughout the nation had no such plans. Florida‘s Governor Ron DeSantis even signed a bill banning the practice of requiring proof of inoculation to attend any school that received state funding. The Tampa Bay Time‘s Jeffrey S. Solochek wrote about how schools in the Sunshine State were coping with DeSantis’ actions.

Students at the University of Alabama, who constitute approximately 30,000 of T-Town‘s residents when the school is in session, as yet would not be required to be vaccinated. There were no final plans on Covid mitigation for August when the 2021 Fall semester at the university will begin. At the university’s spring athletic events, many sports fans were no longer wearing masks, although athletes remained masked when they were not on the field. It was planned that Bryant-Denny Stadium would be at full capacity when the 2021 football season resumed. As many as 100,000 fans could pour into T-Town, the vast majority of whom will be unmasked and not socially distanced. A sizable number of fans will likely not have been fully vaccinated. And that any kind of “herd immunity” would have been arrived at by the first game on September 11, 2021, is uncertain at best.

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A-Day game leads to chaos in T-Town

Image from TPD Facebook post

When the hybrid bar restaurant Twelve/25 applied for its liquor license in 2019, Stephanie Taylor reported in the Tuscaloosa News:

“We want to create a restaurant and sports bar unlike anything on the Strip, or Tuscaloosa for that matter,” said Mobile resident Josh Boone, who earned his undergraduate and law degrees from The University of Alabama. He’s one of three businessmen who invested in the business, hiring a consultant to help with marketing plans and other preparations.

“We’re so passionate about this project,” he said at a June 4 City Council meeting, when the group went before the council for liquor license approval. They said at the time they hoped to open by the first Alabama home game on Sept. 7, but renovations on the decades-old building took longer than expected.

At the first hearing, [Tuscaloosa Mayor] Maddox asked whether the business would appeal to customers other than college students.

“This speaks to the three things I love in life: beer, food and sports,” Maddox said.

More recently Mayor Walt Maddox has had some reservations about hybrid/bar restaurants.

As reported by Jason Morton in the Tuscaloosa News, Mayor Maddox “intends to target business owners that he believes are operating beyond the scope and boundary of the business and alcohol licenses that they had been awarded by the City Council.”

Some of the problems on The Strip that occurred which were related to the A-Day game weekend, according to Tuscaloosa Police Department Chief Brent Blankley, were created when people from out of town responded to social media posts made by bars. He said that a performance by Nle Choppa, a rap artist from Tennessee who “glorifies violence in his music,” drew many of the people to The Strip on the night of April 16th, 2021.

Emily Enfinger reported on the A-Day game weekend incidents in the Tuscaloosa News:

Tuscaloosa police responded to a total of 271 calls for service on the day of the A-Day game, the 24-hour period from early Saturday morning through early Sunday morning.

Several incidents that occurred overnight resulted in multiple arrests and six weapons, including an AK-47, being confiscated by police, according to a Tuscaloosa police news release. 

The concerns of District 4 City Council member Lee Busby were reported by Jason Morton. Busby said that “he was open to reviewing the city’s current entertainment districts, where laws governing  open containers and public consumption of alcohol are relaxed, while questioning whether some businesses justify the expense of protecting them.”

“We may need to examine what this business is worth to the city of Tuscaloosa,” Busby said, “and how many casualties we’re willing to endure as a result of it.”

The crowd that gathered after the A-Day game was reminiscent of the celebratory activities on The Strip that occurred after the National Championship win by the University of Alabama football team on January 11th, 2021. Twelve/25, as well as other bars, on that occasion had been charging a large sum to even get inside. Most of the estimated crowd of 5,000 on The Strip in January were not patrons of its bars. The Strip has become a gathering spot after football games for thousands of fans, at least in some part due to the many bars located there.

Is it too late for T-Town to do anything about the proliferation of bars on The Strip? The University of Alabama once tried to reduce the number of bars adjacent to its campus. But, since then, the number of bars on The Strip has exploded. There are no laws requiring any limits on the distance between bars on The Strip. Jason Morton explained:

Now, a City Council can approve an Alabama Alcoholic Beverage Control Board license for a bar or restaurant, but it lacks the power to rescind it should that business act irresponsibly. Instead, the council’s only recourse is to revoke the business license, a process for which the Alabama courts have set a high standard.

When the 2021 Crimson Tide football season begins in September, will activities on The Strip be a further public safety concern? Stadium capacity for the A Day game was limited to 50,000 fans. In September Bryant Denny Stadium will be allowed to accommodate twice that many fans. After football games The Strip will be closed to vehicular traffic and packed with fans. The cost of maintaining public safety on game day weekends has been borne by the city and university. To some extent the policing of other areas in T-Town has been adversely effected. As Lee Busby has asked, “how many casualties” will be city be “willing to endure” as a result of making it so easy for people to consume alcohol?

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The Bama Covid Experience 2021

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In May, 2020 a FranklinStoveBlog post “A Bama Covid Experience” dealt with how the University of Alabama would reopen in August, 2020.

A national public heath emergency due to the Covid-19 pandemic had been declared in February 2020.

In March University of Alabama President Dr. Stuart R. Bell announced that the University had a Spring semester completion plan, which included no further person-to-person classroom instruction. Students were told not to return to the campus after Spring Break. The plan stated that:

Residence halls and Greek residential houses are closed. Recreation facilities are also closed. Dining halls, food courts, libraries and other services will not be readily available.

In order to provide for further social distancing, a staggered plan to retrieve your belongings from the residence halls and Greek houses is being developed and will be communicated at a later date. Students are not authorized to return to campus outside of this plan and any who show up without authorization will not be accommodated.

After the Spring semester had ended, there were unsubstantiated rumors of Covid parties that students participated in during the summer of 2020. There had been, as a consequence, a good deal of uncertainty about what it would be like when thousands of students returned to campus.

In the Fall of 2020, “every student and employee was required to be tested for COVID-19 and receive a negative result before returning to campus for the fall semester or participating in any campus activity.” Less than 1% had positive results out of the 25,000 University of Alabama students who had been tested as of August 16th. Many T-Town residents were relieved by such low figures.

But after classes resumed on August 19th, there was an an explosion of Coronavirus cases. CNN reported that “more than 1,000 students at the University of Alabama have tested positive for Covid-19 since classes resumed on the Tuscaloosa campus less than two weeks ago.”

On August 24th, there had been a two week closure of bars in Tuscaloosa. Montgomery Advertiser‘s Melissa Brown reported, that in less than 72 hours after school had resumed classes, the University’s President Stuart Bell announced that he was “deeply disappointed” in student behavior. Bell issued new campus directives that restricted student behavior.

Football games were played in Bryant Denny Stadium with a reduced seating capacity along with mask requirements. Other sports events were held under similar conditions.

A proposed Kappa Delta Farm Party was cancelled in November 2020, due to concerns about Covid-19.

The University conducted a Sentinel Testing program which involved the random sampling of all asymptomatic students, faculty and staff. (Other schools frequently tested all students on a mandatory basis.) A March 2021 article by Meghan Schiano in the University’s student newspaper The Crimson White reported that there had been “a record low number of COVID-19 cases among employees […] and another week of low student cases.”

An article in the Crimson White by Javon Williams provided information on the upcoming 2021 Fall Semester at the University. He reported that students returning to the campus would not be tested. There would be person to person instruction, without classroom occupancy limits. No mask requirements were planned for the Fall. The football stadium would be full. Williams wrote:

A transition to remote learning after last year’s spring break marked the beginning of more than a year of lasting impact. Now, as the statewide mask mandate has been lifted and vaccines become available for students, faculty and staff, the University is adapting its safety policies.

KMIZ/ABC17‘s Meghan Drakas was among the many who have reported that some colleges may require that students be vaccinated. She said, “Colleges and universities across the county have started to announce coronavirus vaccine mandates for students attending classes.”

Kaiser Health News reported:

The number of colleges and universities that will require students be fully vaccinated against Covid-19 is suddenly escalating. In just the last few days, Duke University, Brown, Northeastern University, the University of Notre Dame, Syracuse University and Ithaca College all announced that students returning to campus in the fall must be fully vaccinated before the first day of class.

Every year, colleges across the country require students to get vaccinations for diseases such as Measles and Tetanus. Now, one year into the coronavirus pandemic, vaccines against the virus are becoming available for college-age students.

In April, 2021, only 15% of the residents of Tuscaloosa County were reported by USAToday to have been fully vaccinated. Herd immunity was thought to achievable only when 75-80% of the population had been vaccinated. (UAB‘s Dr. Suzanne Judd‘s idea of achieving herd immunity in May, 2021, was considered to be wildly optimistic. But more recently she elaborated on her position. See comments below.) T-Town has a population of over 100,000. There are approximately 30,000 university students living in the community. Even in the unlikely scenario that 75-80% percent of its permanent residents are vaccinated, there will potentially be tens of thousands of student residents from throughout the country and world who are not vaccinated.

There was a legitimate concern about public safety in T-Town, with thousands of unvaccinated University students no longer wearing masks and gatherings such as the Farm Party becoming commonplace. Many people in T-Town were apprehensive about just what the new iteration of Bama Covid experience would be like.

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No Time Like The Right Time?

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Tuscaloosa’s Mayor Walt Maddox had been granted executive powers that gave him the authority to regulate bars and restaurants in 2020, as Jason Morton reported in the Tuscaloosa News. The orders were justified because of a growing surge in coronavirus cases in the community. On August 24, 2020, a fourteen day closure of bars was even mandated by the city.

Had an April 5, 2021, Early Release by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) been available, it might have helped Maddox make his case in 2020. The report “Community Transmission of SARS-CoV-2 Associated with a Local Bar Opening Event” concerned a case study of a bar that had opened in Illinois. The report said:

Forty-six cases of COVID-19 were linked to an indoor bar opening event that occurred during February 2021 in a rural Illinois county. Event patrons were linked to secondary cases among household, long-term care facility, and school contacts, resulting in one hospitalization and one school closure affecting 650 students.

Bars can play a role in community spread of COVID-19 because of limited mask use while eating or drinking and lack of consistent physical distancing. These findings show that SARS-CoV-transmission originating in a business such as a bar not only affects the patrons and employees of the bar but can also affect an entire community. As community businesses begin to reopen, considering additional prevention measures is important, such as limiting building occupancy levels and improving ventilation, especially in locations where consistent and correct mask wearing and physical distancing are difficult to enforce. Businesses can work with local health officials to promote behaviors and maintain environments that reduce the risk for SARS-CoV-2 transmission and develop strategies for reopening safely to prevent outbreaks in the community, such as modifying layouts and operating procedures.

Bars have certainly played an important role in Tuscaloosa’s “experience economy.” After bars had been closed for fourteen days, the city instituted a bar bailout. As reported by by CBSNews19‘s Tim Reid, “the City Council passed a resolution to give $400,000 to 29 bar owners.” Keeping bars open was a high priority for the city.

Because the city was unable to enforce social distancing in bars, it established occupancy limits. The inability of the city to enforce social distancing and mask wearing created incidents such as the one at Rhythm & Brews, where a post on social media by the band Velcro Pygmies exposed the lack of enforcement.

In the Fall, there may be a reopening of Bryant-Denny Stadium with full capacity crowds. University of Alabama football games have traditionally drawn over 100,000 fans to T-Town and filled its hotels, bars and restaurants. The Crimson Tide football season has been a veritable gold mine for the economy of Tuscaloosa.

An April article in the Conversation about the transmission of the Coronavirus at NFL events by Alex R. Piquero and Justin Kurland said that “where teams had 20,000 fans or more at games, there were more than twice as many COVID-19 cases in the three weeks after games compared to counties with other teams. The case rate per 100,000 residents was also twice as high.” The article said that the decisions about limits on stadium capacity had been made with “minimal data about the heightened risk that players and fans face of getting COVID-19 at stadiums or arenas and spreading it in the community.”

Jason Morton‘s April, 6, 2021, article in the Tuscaloosa News “Mayor Walt Maddox: Time Is Right To Rescind COVID_19 Executive Powers” said that the “Tuscaloosa City Council is expected to vote to rescind the executive powers granted to Mayor Walt Maddox to speed the response to the coronavirus pandemic.”

The first death of a University of Alabama student that was related to Covid-19 had just recently shocked T-Town. Leah Goggins reported on the death of super fan Cameron Luke Ratliffin in the University of Alabama‘s student newspaper The Crimson White: “The University of Alabama, which topped charts for campus infections in the fall, has not publicly reported any COVID-19-related deaths among students.”

CNN‘s Christina Maxouris wrote about a highly contagious and deadly Covid variant where “the people most affected now are the younger individuals.” Maxouris reported that Dr. Leana Wen had said, “We’re seeing in places like Michigan that the people who are now getting hospitalized by large numbers are people in their 30s and 40s. And now we’re even seeing children getting infected in larger numbers, too.” She wrote that: “In Florida’s Orange County, officials reported late last month a rise in Covid-19 cases in the 18-25 age group.”

Other communities were experiencing dramatic spikes in Covid cases, many of which had been attributed to large gatherings of college students who were not observing Covid safety precautions, as reported by InsideHigherEd.com. Hopefully Mayor Maddox’s decision to end the city’s extraordinary powers to cope with the pandemic in April was made at the right time for T-Town.

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Herd Immunity in T-Town by May?

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

In March, 2021, many people in T-Town had been emboldened to think that the safety precautions that were put into place because of the Covid-19 pandemic were no longer necessary.

Alabama’s Governor Kay Ivy has urged Alabamians to continue to use masks after the state’s mask order expired on April 9th, as AP News reported. 76 year-old Ivy said that she would continue to wear a mask and urged others to as well.

The first concert of 2021 at the Tuscaloosa Amphitheater was scheduled to occur in June. As reported by Mark Hughes Cobb in the Tuscaloosa News, the Jon Pardi show is “being listed as socially distanced, with reduced capacity, and masking required.”

Alabama‘s A-Day Spring Football Game, according to BamaOnLine‘s Charlie Potter was likely occur with seating limited to a “20-25 percent range.” Whether masks would be required had not been announced at the time of the event’s scheduling.

A story ran in the Tuscaloosa News by Mark Hughes Cobb about the return of the Druid City Arts Festival to the city’s Government Plaza on May 14th, 2021. As many as 13,000 people have attended the festival in the past. Whether there would be social distancing and mask wearing during the outdoor event was not predictable. Many University of Alabama students have routinely not worn masks or socially distanced at bars. Although the University had its final classes of the semester in April, students were still likely to participate in the event. It took place in the Entertainment District, where the open carrying of alcoholic beverages was permitted.

Contributing to the new laissez-faire attitude about Covid-19 that many members of the public seemed to have was the widely published opinion of the nutritional epidemiologist Suzanne Judd in the University of Alabama Birmingham‘s (UAB) Department of Biostatistics.

Judd was quoted in the the UAB News by Holly Gainer as having said:

“We have great data to know how many people tested positive and how many people have been vaccinated. From there, we can estimate how many people have immunity but never received a vaccine and never had a positive test based on studies that have tested immunity in blood. We are able to put these numbers together and come up with the estimate of when we will reach herd immunity, which is May of this year.”

According to the New York Times only about 13% of Alabama residents had been fully vaccinated by March 23, 2021.

Alabama is one of the reddest of red states. Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson expressed concern about the “hesitancy reported among supporters of former President Trump” to be vaccinated “due to ‘a natural resistance to government,'” according to The Hill‘s Joseph Choi. There is a high likelihood of a similar reticence among citizens of Alabama to be vaccinated.

In a high poverty state such as Alabama there are barriers other than political ideology to vaccination. WBRC6 reported that the State National Guard had been administering vaccinations in West Alabama. Alabama’s poverty rate has fluctuated from as high as 19% to 15% of its population.

Some epidemiologists are not optimistic about herd immunity ever being established. Writing in the prestigious journal Nature, Christie Aschwanden reported that “the theoretical threshold for vanquishing COVID-19 looks to be out of reach.”

Aschwanden‘s article featured the opinion of several notable epidemiologists. She wrote:

As COVID-19 vaccination rates pick up around the world, people have reasonably begun to ask: how much longer will this pandemic last? It’s an issue surrounded with uncertainties. But the once-popular idea that enough people will eventually gain immunity to SARS-CoV-2 to block most transmission — a ‘herd-immunity threshold’ — is starting to look unlikely.

That threshold is generally achievable only with high vaccination rates, and many scientists had thought that once people started being immunized en masse, herd immunity would permit society to return to normal. Most estimates had placed the threshold at 60–70% of the population gaining immunity, either through vaccinations or past exposure to the virus. But as the pandemic enters its second year, the thinking has begun to shift. In February, independent data scientist Youyang Gu changed the name of his popular COVID-19 forecasting model from ‘Path to Herd Immunity’ to ‘Path to Normality’. He said that reaching a herd-immunity threshold was looking unlikely because of factors such as vaccine hesitancy, the emergence of new variants and the delayed arrival of vaccinations for children.

Aschwanden reported that Shweta Bansal, a mathematical biologist at Georgetown University in Washington DC. had said vaccine effectiveness for halting transmission needs to be “pretty darn high” for herd immunity to matter.

“No community is an island, and the landscape of immunity that surrounds a community really matters,” she says. COVID-19 has occurred in clusters across the United States as a result of people’s behavior or local policies. Previous vaccination efforts suggest that uptake will tend to cluster geographically, too, Bansal adds. Localized resistance to the measles vaccination, for example, has resulted in small pockets of disease resurgence. “Geographic clustering is going to make the path to herd immunity a lot less of a straight line, and essentially means we’ll be playing a game of whack-a-mole with COVID outbreaks.” Even for a country with high vaccination rates, such as Israel, if surrounding countries haven’t done the same and populations are able to mix, the potential for new outbreaks remains.

Aschwanden wrote that “given what’s known about other coronaviruses and the preliminary evidence for SARS-CoV-2, it seems that infection-associated immunity wanes over time, so that needs to be factored in to calculations. Bansal said, “We’re still lacking conclusive data on waning immunity, but we do know it’s not zero and not 100.”

Limiting social contact and continuing protective behaviors such as masking will still be important. She wrote that it will be “hard to stop people reverting to pre-pandemic behavior. Texas and some other US state governments are already lifting mask mandates.”

Who knows? Perhaps Suzanne Judd‘s prediction about Alabama will be accurate. Some people have attributed the lack of a dramatic peak in infections after an largely unmasked crowd of 5,000 amassed to celebrate the University of Alabama football team’s National Championship to “herd immunity.” By May perhaps the 13% figure for people in Alabama who were vaccinated in March could well have dramatically increased. Perhaps T-Town will be someday considered as an anomaly or even model for the rest of the world?

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St. Paddy’s & T-Town in the time of Covid

Photo by Anna Shvets on Pexels.com

With the occupancy restrictions removed for bars in T-Town in March, 2021, local establishments were probably anticipating making a killing on St. Paddy’s Day. Excessive drinking on the anniversary of St. Patrick‘s death (March 17th) had become a blasphemous tradition. The Christian forty day observation of Lent, where alcohol use was prohibited, was traditionally interrupted to celebrate the Saint’s death. Probably most of the patrons who would be drinking green beer in T-Town were not observing Lent or celebrating a Catholic saint’s death. They were there for the specials.

The Patch‘s Ryan Phillips provided a list of T-Town bars that were offering St. Paddy’s Day specials. Included in the array of special drinks that were being offered were Irish Car Bombs. It is doubtful that many patrons ordering the drink named for an Irish Republican Army weapon would be aware of just how insulting their choice of beverage might be to many Irishmen.

Writing for the Daily Nexus, Scott Dicke recalled an episode in an Irish Pub:

While I was abroad my American roommate tried to order an Irish Car Bomb at the bar. The bartender just stared at him and told him they don’t sell them. My roommate was confused, until I reminded him what a car bomb means to Irish people. Car bombs in Ireland are no fun thing.

According to Wikipedia: “Increasingly, bartenders prefer the title ‘Irish Slammer’, ‘Irish Bomb Shot’, Car Crash,’ or simply the ‘Irish Bomb’ to avoid offending patrons.”

“Snake” can be slang for a person who acts in a deceitful, underhanded, or backstabbing way. But St. Patrick was reputed to have driven the reptile kind of snake from Ireland. (However National Geographic‘s James Owen has written about the fact that Ireland may have just been too cold to become a snake habitat.) The long lines that have often snaked outside of bars in T-Town may have been diminished on St. Paddy’s Day in 2021 by potentially severe weather.

The Tuscaloosa News warned about the possibility of “strong, long-track tornadoes, damaging winds up to 80 miles per hour and golf-ball-size hail” on St. Paddy’s Day. The city of Tuscaloosa opened up five storm shelters in preparation for threatening weather conditions.

It was likely that many dedicated bar-hoppers would only seek shelter from the storm in their favorite watering holes.

The danger from severe weather might well be less than that of the possibility of increased Coronavirus infections. USAToday‘s Linda Hasco wrote about the concerns over maskless Spring Break crowds causing a spike in infections, in the light of the new deadly variants that were being found in the US.

The Austin American-Stateman‘s Laura Morales reported that a “highly transmissible coronavirus strain first detected in California has been identified on the University of Texas campus.” Spring Break had not been cancelled at University of Texas. School officials responded with an email that said:

To help prevent exporting or importing variants if traveling for spring break, and to prevent a surge in cases after spring break, it is critical that members of our community strictly follow public health measures. 

A “Saint Fratty’s Day” party that Cal Poly San Luis Obispo students held was reported by CalCoast News, where few participants were wearing masks. In T-Town, masks are frequently worn –on the arms– of people in bars.

Of course T-Town may have continued to dodge the bullet. Its crowd of 5,000 celebrants on January 12, 2021, only produced a small spike in Covid-19 infections, according to Bloomberg‘s Jonathan Levin. Other such events have had far worse consequences.

Saint Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, doubtlessly wouldn’t endorse the commercialization of his death in T-Town. And the idea that a celebration in his name might spread a deadly disease is a sin, possibly beyond any which might be associated with Sinn Fein‘s car bombs.

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