Alcohol & Denial in the time of Covid-19

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In spite of the pandemic’s restrictions on “normal” college life, a recent hazing incident at Bowling Green State University (BGSU) shows that perhaps things haven’t changed that much. Admittedly there are certainly not as many reported cases of hazing these days.

A BGSU student was being kept on life support “following an alleged hazing incident involving alcohol” until his organs could be harvested, as The Hill‘s Celine Castronuovo reported. The alleged hazing took place at the school’s Pi Kappa Alpha (PIKE) fraternity house.

WTOL-11‘s Emma Henderson interviewed a BGSU student who recounted how his roommate was violently sick after returning from a PIKE pledge party

“We have to drink a handle of any alcohol that our big gives us. We have to finish the whole thing in the time we’re there before we leave. I’ve never seen my roommate more drunk in his entire life, he immediately went to the bathroom and was throwing up in the toilet for just 15 minutes to an hour and making himself vomit.”

“It’s crazy to me that they can allow this deathly and neglectful drinking to go on. I think it’s incredible to me that they try to hide themselves behind this organization.”

The use of alcohol by students could have a disastrous impact on any attempts to combat the spread of the Coronavirus.

KDRV-12 warned that this year’s Spring Break could be a “perfect storm” for spreading the COVID-19 virus. Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine commented on the potential for a superspreader event at beaches that were popular with students.

You’ve got the B.1.1.7 variant accelerating in Florida. You’ve got all these 20-year-old kids. None of them are going to have masks. They’re all going to be drinking. They’re having pretty close, intimate contact. And then, after that’s all done, they’re going to go back to their home states and spread the B.1.1.7 variant.’

Attempts to physically distance and wear masks typically go out the window at parties where alcohol is involved.

It’s not just that drinking makes people take off their masks (if they’re wearing one at all). Alcohol can cause people to get closer to one another than usual, Hotez said.

That’s especially dangerous this spring break, when revelers at popular hot spots may not just be exposed to students from across the country — they could also be exposed to variants or outbreaks from those parts of the country as well.

So this is not the time to have a superspreader event for that UK variant, which is what spring break in Florida would look like,’ Hotez said.

‘This is not the time to be sending a bunch of 20-year-olds to Florida, then sending them back, disseminating it across the country.’

Susannah Bryan, who writes for the South Florida Sun Sentinel, reported on problems during the Spring Break in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. She spoke with Davenport University‘s 21-year-old Jack Gumeinny, who said, “Florida hasn’t skipped a beat.” She wrote:

Gumeinny, a junior at Davenport University, shrugged at the lack of social distancing.

“We’re not in the at-risk group,” he said.

Gumeinny said he and his buddies planned to head to a strip club in between bar hopping. On Thursday, they partied at Café Ibiza on A1A, surrounded by a crowd of maskless coeds dancing to the loudest music on the block.

Bryan reported that Broward Mayor Steve Geller was very upset about the lack of code enforcement.

“We’re in the middle of a pandemic,” Geller said. “I’m not opposed to college kids having fun — just not in the middle of a pandemic. We will take action” if Fort Lauderdale doesn’t.

But Fort Lauderdale Mayor Dean Trantalis insisted that most people were obeying the rules. He was quoted as having said, “I think people should spend more time focusing than trying to play gotcha with other people visiting our community.”

Many politicians, who favor reopening their communities, have been quick to say that deaths from and the number of cases of COVID-19 have been declining. In Axios, Bryan Walsh wrote that “Daily COVID-19 tests in the U.S. have declined by more than a quarter since mid-January.” But he pointed out that the pandemic is “far from finished.” He explained that to some extent positive cases weren’t being looked at because of vaccinations. Instead the emphasis was on “verifying constantly that those who were vaccinated or were negative before are still negative,” according to Tony Lemmo, the CEO of the diagnostics equipment company BioDot.

The fact that 43,000 people in Texas had died due to COVID-19 apparently did not make a lot of difference to its Governor Greg Abbott, who relaxed public safety orders in the Lone Star state. The Texas Tribune‘s Shannon Najmabadi spoke with Delia Ramos whose husband had died due to the Coronavirus. Ramos disagreed with Abbott’s lifting of the mask order. Najmabadi reported on Ramos‘ concerns:

“People can go pick up groceries, people can go into a restaurant and people can shop around the mall in masks.” It feels like people that think it’s “inconvenient to wear a mask” override all the “people that have been lost” to the virus, as well as doctors and nurses working long hours and teachers scared to go to work for fear of being exposed.”

Orange Beach, Alabama, did not want to become a “MTV destination.” Al.com‘s John Sharp reported:

Gulf Shores has banned alcohol on its beaches for the past six years during Spring Break. Now Orange Beach is outright closing a beach during the break.

Orange Beach Mayor Tony Kennon said the beach’s spring closures could become a springtime tradition in order to create a “sanctuary city for families” and to “eliminate an MTV destination.”

“We’ve eliminated that area so we don’t have all of these spring breakers sowing mischief,” said Kennon.

Kennon said the decision to close the beach “is absolutely about Spring Break” and less about the coronavirus pandemic.

The use of alcohol during an pandemic, particularly by young people many of whom tend to binge drink, inevitably leads to the spread of COVID-19.

Alabama‘s Governor Ivy extended the state’s mask order to April 9. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases has been highly critical of states which have lifted mask wearing orders. Carlie Porterfield in Forbes wrote that Fauci has said that such “premature” actions during a coronavirus pandemic will likely lead to another surge of new coronavirus cases.

If mask wearing in T-Town diminishes, there may a reversal of any progress in combating the virus. The state has also increased the number of people who may occupy tables in bars and restaurants. Both lack of mask wearing and inadequate social distancing are a formula for disaster.

The University of Alabama‘s classes end on April 23 but exams will be conducted until the 30th.

If there is any outbreak of Coronavirus in April on campus due to the state’s decision to no longer maintain a mask order, it may well not be fully reported. Asymptomatic students may return to their hometowns, bearing an unwanted house guest.

When the University convenes in the Fall, are there plans to revert to “normal” conditions on campus? Will the same pre-entry testing that occurred last year be required when there were over 2,000 cases reported–at the time more than more than the total cases in 35 states?

The idea that life will revert to “normal” in T-Town anytime soon may well be only a pipe dream, as fervently as it is wished for by many people.

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Getting Back To Normal?

President Donald J Trump in April of 2020, during a covid task force address in the early days of the nation’s response to the pandemic, mentioned Bryant Denny Stadium. In AL.com‘s Leada Gore‘s article “Alabama football mentioned during Trump coronavirus update: ‘We want 110,000 people there’, he said” Trump was quoted:

“Our normal is if you have 100,00 people in an Alabama football game or 110,000 to be specific,” Trump said. “Normal” is not going to be a game where you have 50,000. We want 110,000 people there. We want every seat occupied. Normal is not going to be a game where we have 50,000” people.

President Trump no longer occupies the White House. But he must be overjoyed that the University of Alabama‘s Athletic Director Greg Byrne has said that he expects a full-capacity crowd at Bryant-Denny Stadium in the fall. Sports Illustrated reported that Bryne Tweeted about the stadium capacity after the University of Alabama had revealed its plans to resume in-person class “without restrictions” in the fall 2021 semester.

The Yellowhammer News reported in May, 2020, that Alabama System Chancellor Finis “Fess” St. John IV had been part of “an exclusive national group for a discussion with Vice President Mike Pence and other key Trump administration officials on how to best get Americans safely back to school in the fall.” The University of Alabama in 2020 took major steps in response to Covid-19 that altered campus life. The new normal in 2021 has reset the game.

Mark Hughes Cobb in the Tuscaloosa News wrote that “University of Alabama students will return to traditional in-classroom instruction for fall 2021, following models that predict COVID-19 herd immunity will be achieved by late spring or early summer.”

Cobb reported that Charlie Taylor, director of operations for the UA System Health and Safety Task Force, said that the decision to resume in-person classes was based on information that the University Of Alabama Birmingham (UAB) had put forward. Taylor said, “UAB projects we hit herd immunity — which means 72 percent of the population — by end of May or early summer.”

UAB epidemiologist Dr. Suzanne Judd was among the first who have said that herd immunity was imminent. The Gadsden TimesDonna Thornton wrote that Dr. Judd said that “more people have antibodies for COVID-19 than tested positive for the virus.” She claimed that, along with those who had been vaccinated, the numbers of those infected already and immune might constitute herd immunity.

Dr Judd also said that public health precautions of mask-wearing, social distancing and frequent hand washing should continue. She also warned that it is not known whether people who are vaccinated still can transmit the virus if exposed.

Other epidemiologists have different ideas about herd immunity. Christelle Ilboudo, MD, infectious disease expert at MU Health Care, doubts that infection will provide long-term protection from the virus. She and other epidemiologists think that “herd immunity” will not be achieved until 80-90% of the population have COVID-19 immunity. “We have not achieved any herd immunity through a natural disease process to most major infectious diseases that affect the population to this scale. All of the major infections I know of have required vaccination.”

CNN‘s Deidre McPhillips wrote a lengthy article about the prospects of the United States achieving herd immunity. There were varying projections. One thing that can be certain is that there is no agreement among the experts.

Jessica Malaty Rivera, science communications lead at the COVID Tracking Project, said. “Herd immunity can only be discussed in the context of mass vaccination. I’m on the more conservative side and very hesitant to claim that natural immunity is causing a meaningful difference in these numbers. We really need to be vaccinating at least 70% of the population. That seems potentially possible by the end of the year if there are no significant bottlenecks in production or delivery.”

In Phillips’ article Dr. Christopher Murray, director of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation commented on the threat of Covid-19 variants, “There isn’t a very clear route to herd immunity if those variants spread, and it’s a very tricky business trying to predict at what pace they’ll spread.”

The New York Time‘s Anemona Hartocollis wrote about how schools have been impacted by the pandemic:

Colleges and universities across the country are pledging to reopen more fully in the fall, with some administrators worried that students won’t return to campus if normality, or some semblance of it, isn’t restored by September.

Schools from large state institutions to small private ones have announced they are laying plans to bring students back to dormitories, deploy professors to teach most (if not all) classes in person and restart extracurricular activities, in stark contrast to the past academic year of largely virtual courses and limited social contact. The announcements of these changes coincide with the sending of acceptance letters to the class of 2025.

Some schools have taken a financial hit because of deferred admissions or lost room-and-board fees.

More than 120,000 coronavirus cases have been linked to American colleges and universities since Jan. 1, and more than 530,000 cases have been reported since the beginning of the pandemic, according to a New York Times survey. The Times has identified more than 100 deaths, but the vast majority involved employees, not students.

In his article in The Tuscaloosa News, Cobb quoted the University of Alabama‘s Charlie Taylor: “Enrollment (numbers were) not a consideration. This decision was made based on what is safe, and in the best interest of our students.”

As the UAB‘s Dr. Judd has cautioned, mask wearing and social distancing will be required for the foreseeable future. How social distancing will be accomplished in crowded classrooms or in a packed stadium should be a concern. There are also different ideas about when “herd immunity” will come into play.

Certainly Donald J Trump‘s idea of normal may be realized when football games begin again in Bryant Denny Stadium. But will that kind of normal be what the doctor ordered for T-Town?

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Ohio State’s #1!

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Ohio State University is outpacing many states in testing its both on-campus and off-campus students. The school has tested 200,000 students since it started processing tests on campus on October, 2020.

The Columbus Dispatch‘s Sheridan Hendrix wrote that “COVID-19 tests became mandatory for students living in dorms. Testing later increased to include students living off-campus and frontline employees.”

Simone Jasper in the Miami Herald reported that the plunge in Covid cases nationwide could be attributed in part to the fact that “the seven-day average of new tests was trending downward in recent days.” Jasper wrote:

With the focus shifting to the COVID-19 vaccination effort, Eleanor Murray, a Boston University School of Public Health expert, pointed out some cases may simply be going unnoticed. Murray said she worried it could be getting more difficult to be tested as focus shifts to vaccination efforts.

The Nashville Tennessean‘s Brett Kelman described how the partying which had occurred all during the pandemic throughout the South culminated in T-Town:

On Jan. 11, as many southern states were grappling with the most infections they’d ever seen, the Alabama Crimson Tide crushed the Ohio State Buckeyes in the last game of a bizarre and incomplete season of college football.

When final whistle blew, thousands of Alabama college students took to the streets of Tuscaloosa to celebrate amid the deadliest year of their lives. The crowd, mostly unmasked, packed shoulder-to-shoulder on a quarter-mile street called The Strip. The spread of the virus was far smaller than the Mardi Gras carnival that kicked off coronavirus 11 months prior, but parallels in behavior were obvious. 

They chugged beers. They chanted cheers. They spread joy. And the second year of coronavirus in the American South began the same as the first – with a party.

Although Alabama‘s Crimson Tide beat the Ohio State Buckeyes in the football championship game, it appears that Ohio State University is winning in terms of testing on campus. At the University of Alabama the testing of off-campus students, which comprise seventy-five percent of its student body, is voluntary. The school has attempted to increase its sentinel testing (random sampling of asymptomatic individuals), as Kelly Hutchinson in the campus newspaper The Crimson White reported, by “offering incentives like gift cards and BamaCash” to off-campus students who are not required to be tested.

UAB epidemiologist Dr. Suzanne Judd, as reported by Donna Thornton, has said that “herd immunity” might explain the recently decreasing numbers in Covid cases in Alabama. She speculated that more people were infected early in the pandemic than have tested positive. She said that studies indicate that more people have antibodies for COVID-19 than those who tested positive for the virus. She said that, combined with vaccinations, those earlier infections might promote a “herd immunity.” Judd‘s idea about herd immunity may differ from other experts in the field.

Christelle Ilboudo, MD, infectious disease expert at MU Health Care, doubts that infection will provide long-term protection from the virus. She and other epidemiologists think that “herd immunity” will not be achieved until 80-90% of the population have COVID-19 immunity. “We have not achieved any herd immunity through a natural disease process to most major infectious diseases that affect the population to this scale. All of the major infections I know of have required vaccination.”

Newspaper headlines about declining cases may result in people exercising less caution when in public. 

An article in the Tuscaloosa News by Becky Hopf about a proposed Tuscaloosa Half Marathon for March reported that runners would be maskless. She wrote:

Since 2019, FRESHJUNKIE Racing has administered the races, and, in the time of COVID, race director Jonathan Dziuba assures the event will execute safety precautions.

The main points of the plan that concern runners is the assigned wave start times based on the runners’ anticipated finish time, the requirement to wear a mask at all times when not actually running [emphasis mine] on the race course and the lack of a big post-race party atmosphere this year. The focus is on the run and giving people an opportunity to compete in one.

Wearing a mask while running is required in any safe event. In the New York Times, Gretchen Reynolds has written about Covid issues and running. “If you pass other runners, try to swing at least 6 feet wide, and preferably 15 feet or more, because respiratory particles are unlikely to float that far, he said. And avoid drafting behind other racers; their expired air congregates in the shoulder-wide slipstream behind them.” 

She wrote that gaiters were often used and that runners must wear them “or another facial covering at the start and whenever they pass other runners en route.” Bert Blocken, a professor of civil engineering at Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands and KU Leuven in Belgium (who studies airflow, including during cycling and running events), said that runners should “carry a handkerchief and keep their mucus and spittle contained,”  In such races, said. He added that “it is well known that saliva and snot flies around.”

Reynolds explained, “Since those fluids could contain viral particles if the racer releasing them is infected, runners should not spit or blow their noses into the air, he said, and steer clear of any racers who do not comply.”

A Runner’s World article by Jordan Smith gave guidelines for runners. Heather Milton, M.S., exercise physiologist supervisor at NYU Langone Health’s Sports Performance Center, was reported as having said “even when you’re wearing a mask, it’s important to also keep a big distance between yourself and others—both factors are important when it comes to prevention of infection. Wearing a mask is not a substitute for social distancing.” She warned that “universal masking would help prevent the spread of the virus, but that is likely not realistic that all runners will adhere to that during the length of a race.”


The perception that might be created by this marathon that things are getting back to normal in T-Town, by holding a race in March where runners wear no masks, may have the same effect as the optimistic newspaper pandemic headlines. In a town where there was a notorious celebration on The Strip, that would be the last thing that the doctor would order.


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Crowds & Covid in the Street

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A color run provides a good illustration of people being in a crowd during a pandemic. Just envisage the paint as viral droplets.

But people participating in a color run are usually moving. It’s a race. The crowd that gathered on The Strip to celebrate the University of Alabama football team’s national championship on January 11th, 2021, was largely stationary. After all people were packed together like sardines. They were, of course, eventually able to move out of the way of the squad cars that dispersed them.

There have been newspaper reports that the event on The Strip, which largely involved four or five thousand students who poured out of bars and came from nearby student housing, did not lead to a significant spike in Covid-19 cases. That’s remarkable. Events throughout the nation that have involved far fewer people, such as people going to church, wedding receptions, White House events and parties, have been super-spreaders.

A Facebook page post, which might well have been tongue and cheek, explained the lack of contagion among students. It said that students had developed a “herd immunity.” “Between their parties and bars and surging numbers from earlier in the pandemic they’ve all had it already.” Of course, if that unlikely scenario were actually the case, they could never ever see their parents, grandparents and outside friends, etc. without potentially exposing them.

NOLA.com‘s Emily Woodruff‘s article about how New Orleans in 2020 became an early coronavirus hotspot quoted Jeremy Kamil, a professor of microbiology and immunology:

“If college students are crowding on Bourbon Street, a lot of those people won’t get seriously ill,” said Kamil. “But if they go home and visit grandma, or if they spread it to someone else who spreads it to someone else who works in a nursing home or is a prison employee, then all of a sudden you’re indirectly involved in a chain of events where now you, in some way, have participated in the death of 90 people.”

New Orleans, in preparation for the 2021 Mardi Gras took measures, such as shutting bars citywide and putting up street barriers. Jeff Adelson reported for NOLA.com that bars that flouted coronavirus rules were being shuttered in early February.

Another national football championship brought people into the streets. On January 7, 2021, in Tampa Bay and other cities Super Bowl celebrants duplicated what occurred on The Strip. USAToday‘s Josh Peter wrote:

Thousands of people took to the roads and the streets across this city Sunday night after the Tampa Bay Buccaneers beat the Kansas City Chiefs 31-9 in Super Bowl 55. What many didn’t bring to the impromptu celebration was masks.

The festivities turned especially raucous outside the Tampa Convention Center downtown, where college-aged revelers cheered, guzzled alcohol and sometimes surrounded cars that were blaring music. 

There was little sign of masks.

“It’s been a long year with COVID,’’ said Kyle Bradshaw, 25, wearing a Tom Brady jersey. “People are ready to party.’’

According to AL.com‘s John Sharp there was a lot of apprehension in Mobile, Alabama over Mardi Gras activities. He wrote:

Mobile’s police chief said Monday he remains concerned about the “safety of our men and women” on Mardi Gras Day when the city moves forward with closing its downtown streets – allowing for potential crowds and with the potential of eight separate block parties occurring during the day.

Chief Lawrence Battiste said that “less than 25%” of his department is vaccinated from COVID-19, as most law enforcements have opted not to receive a shot since they had first offered them last month. That means most of the police patrolling the streets during Mardi Gras will be “exposed to the virus.”

As far as vaccinations were concerned a report by USAFacts indicated that younger people were far less likely to be vaccinated:

53% of adults “definitely” plan to get vaccinated or have already received full vaccination. Forty-five percent either said they were less than absolute that they would get vaccinated (responding “probably,” “probably not,” or definitely will not”) or reported that they’d already had their first shot and don’t plan to receive a second.

There are demographic differences between people seeking vaccinations and those who aren’t. Fifty-one percent of adults under 25 said they were uncertain or won’t get fully vaccinated, compared with 27% of the 65 and older population who said the same.

Mandatory testing for the Covid-19 virus was only required at the University of Alabama for on-campus students returning after its break. Any vaccination requirements may likewise be limited to students who live on-campus. And CNBC.com‘s Abigail Johnson Hess wrote that it would be difficult to keep unvaccinated students off-campus.

At the University of Massachusetts, as reported in Forbes by Michael T Nietzel, because of an increase in Covid-19 cases, the university’s campus risk level was placed at “High Risk” with a number of “significant new restrictions on classes and other campus activities for a two week period.” Neitzel wrote:

University of Massachusetts Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy acknowledged that the steps “may seem like drastic measures.” But, he continued, “faced with the surge in cases we are experiencing in our campus community, we have no choice but to take these steps. By acting aggressively now, we are confident we can contain this surge and more quickly return to normal operations, including a resumption of in-person classes and organized student activities. Our extensive planning process anticipated the possibility of this occurrence, and we are prepared to take swift and decisive action to protect our community. Be assured that in all we do, the health and well-being of our students, faculty and staff are of paramount concern.” 

Perhaps T-Town and the University of Alabama will continue to beat the odds and the large numbers of students who have not observed Covid-19 safety precautions when they are off-campus will not precipitate the kind of spike in cases that occurred in Massachusetts. In any event, people who are in the college age range will not likely require hospitalization. Many are asymptomatic and might not even be aware that they have been infected since there is no mandatory testing for students. However they can certainly spread the virus in the community.

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It’s 21 4 A Reason

There were Billboards in T-Town about students getting educated instead of addicted. The billboards weren’t to be found in areas close to the University of Alabama but they were all over town.

The organization Pride of Tuscaloosa that was responsible for the billboards is supported by the City of Tuscaloosa, the West Alabama Chamber of Commerce, and Nicks Kids.

Pride of Tuscaloosa has posted a Tweet “Rethink Your Drink” with a chart that has facts that come from a World Health Organization infographic on alcohol and death.

The position of the National Institute on Alcohol Use and Alcoholism is that: “Underage drinking is a serious public health problem in the United States. Alcohol is the most widely used substance among America’s youth, and drinking by young people poses enormous health and safety risks.”

The crowds that poured out of bars on The Strip after Alabama’s football team won the national championship may well have created a super-spreader event. The University of Alabama published figures on student Covid cases. It has reported 450 since classes resumed on Jan. 13. The University said that there were record numbers of off-campus positive cases over the holiday break. In spite of the figures posted on its Dashboard, Vice President for Student Life Myron Pope has indicated that the University may bring back social events, as reported in The Crimson White by Kelby Hutchinson.

Of course, since there was no contract tracing of the students who participated, whether the rise in cases at the University was related to the congregation of thousands of students on The Strip would be pure speculation. However a satirical suggestion for a Tee-shirt alludes to the celebration.

A satirical Tee-shirt

Since one consequence of under-aged drinking is the impairment of judgment and risky behavior, some of the students who rushed onto the packed crowd on University Boulevard and were shouting at the top of their lungs while not wearing masks may have been inebriated. It would be highly likely that many of them were younger than 21 years of age. (The Tuscaloosa Police Department would have records of the ages of any who were arrested.) Most students have worn masks during the football games in Bryant-Denny Stadium and at basketball games at Coleman Coliseum. But not wearing masks while lining up at bars on The Strip has been commonplace.

The University of Alabama certainly has a strict policy on alcohol use:

Individuals under 21 years of age are not permitted to consume alcohol or be in possession of alcohol. Alcohol paraphernalia (which includes but is not limited to: empty beer cans or bottles, shot glasses, etc.) are prohibited and considered a violation of policy. Individuals over the age of 21 may consume alcohol in designated areas on campus in a safe and responsible manner.

Getting educated, not addicted, is even more important during the Coronavirus pandemic. The risky behavior that occurred on The Strip after the national championship was doubtlessly fueled by alcohol. It is good that the City of Tuscaloosa and West Alabama Chamber of Commerce support an organization like Pride of Tuscaloosa that is trying to get the message out about the consequences of under-aged drinking.

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Did T-Town dodge a Covid bullet?

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Maybe what T-Town may have dodged might be better characterized as shotgun pellets, rather than a bullet.

The crowd of thousands that gathered on The Strip to celebrate the University of Alabama‘s football team’s National Championship could be considered a “super-spreader” event. People on The Strip after the game were shouting at the top of their lungs and packed together like sardines on January 11th, 2021. There have been many documented incidents of groups of only hundreds, such as wedding parties, that have caused Coronavirus infections in a community.

Jason Morton‘s reported in his article in the Tuscaloosa News “COVID-19 cases hold steady in Tuscaloosa one week after title celebration”:

So far, no community spikes in COVID-19 infections related to last week’s celebration of the University of Alabama’s latest football national championship have been reported at local hospitals.

But, Mayor Walt Maddox said on Tuesday, this potentially could change in the coming days.

On the week following the celebration in the street there was an uptick in hospitalizations at DCH with a new high of 199 coronavirus inpatients, as the Patch‘s Ryan Phillips reported. Whether that would become a trend was not known.

Martin Andersen, an assistant professor of economics at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, in September 2020, co-authored a paper that linked community Covid-19 cases to college reopenings. Jillian Berman in Market Watch quoted him as having said:

“We’re sitting on a powder keg right now, between these new, more contagious variants of COVID-19 that are circulating, everyone having gone home for the winter break and having come back. We’re already in a bad situation and this has a risk of making it extremely bad.”

Such a study may have been one of the reasons why a labor union at the University of Alabama was so  concerned about the student celebration. In the University of Alabama‘s student newspaper The Crimson White, Grace Schlepis and Javon Williams reported:

UA Provost James Dalton announced a remote learning option for the first two weeks of the semester after Monday night’s championship celebration was deemed a possible superspreader event by Alabama health officials.

After Monday night’s events, United Campus Workers (UCW), a labor union representing UA employees, emailed Dalton and UA President Stuart Bell on Tuesday to demand a remote learning option. 

The University said in a statement on Tuesday that the spread of the virus is “almost nonexistent” in classrooms.

In its most recent meeting, Faculty Senate President Rona Donahoe reported that 90% of COVID cases were contracted off campus. 

Bell later said the gatherings on The Strip “underscore[d] the need for continued vigilance and caution by every member of our community.” 

UCW said that Monday night’s crowds “suggest that it is inevitable last night’s celebrations could lead to a local spike in new COVID-19 cases both within the City of Tuscaloosa and on our campus”

The nature of the Coronavirus is that college aged people have milder cases of the disease as pointed out in John Hopkins Medicine‘s Health bulletin. They are less likely to be hospitalized because of COVID-19 or to die from it. But they are also more likely to transmit the virus than others.

Seventy-five percent of students at the University of Alabama live off-campus. Only those who lived in dorms or fraternity houses on campus were required by the University to participate in Spring 2021 Reentry Testing. Since a large number of the students who participated in the championship celebration lived in student apartments near The Strip, they had likely not been tested. Perhaps fortune shined on T-Town and in that crowd of people, many of whom who had just returned from various cities in the United States, there were no Covid-19 carriers. However if there were Covid infected students, the extent of their proximity to people living in the community could be eventually reflected in hospital statistics.

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Football team: A+/University & City: F-

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Alabama football coach Nick Saban said, as reported by Al.com‘s Joseph Goodman, that this year’s Crimson Tide was the “ultimate team.” The team’s victory over Ohio State in the College Football Playoff was an extraordinary accomplishment. But that wasn’t why Saban set this team apart from all others. After all, Alabama now has won 18 National Championships. Saban said that the perseverance of the team during the uncertainty of the Covid-19 pandemic put this team in a category all of its own.

More than one ESPN commentator, during its coverage of the playoff, emphasized that the Crimson Tide had exhibited an uncommon discipline during this year’s season. Players had a daily regimen of studying for classes and game preparation, while isolatiing themselves from others. They were tested on a daily basis with a six inch nasopharyngeal swab. Players did not participate in a traditional social life on or off campus. Saban trusted his players and their families enough to allow them to spend Christmas at home.

Crimson Tide players maintained discipline while studying at a school that has had high rates of Coronavirus infections. Many students who are not athletes have had cavalier attitudes about the pandemic. This was evident on the day of the January 11, 2021 playoff.

BroBible‘s Grayson Weir wrote about the student activity on gameday that occurred on The Strip:

It is 42 degrees and damp in Tuscaloosa, Ala. but that didn’t stop University of Alabama students from securing a spot in line at their favorite bars ahead of Monday’s National Championship game. The kickoff between the Crimson Tide and the Ohio State Buckeyes was scheduled for 7:00 p.m. CST, but the city’s main downtown area, called “The Strip,” started opening its doors at 11:00 a.m. to lines that were already hundreds of students deep.

Twelve 25 and Gallettes are the two most popular bars in the city and each bar took advantage of the high-demand and charged massive prices just to get in. The cover charge at Gallettes reached $100 by four o’clock in the afternoon while Twelve 25 was heard to have been charging upward of $250 for entry. To make things even more exclusive and lucrative, neither bar was “pre-banding,” which is the act of getting an entry wristband, leaving and coming back to that same bar later on. If you’re in, you’re in — if you’re out, you’re out.

WRBL.com‘s Malique Rankin reported on the atmosphere on The Strip:

“Yeah it’s going to be worth the wait,” said one Alabama student who would not share his name. “The whole street is going to be packed tonight.”

When asked if he was concerned for his health, he said no.

“Not at all! Absolutely not! Focused on winning the championship,” he said.

Cooper Weingert, a senior at UA said the pandemic takes a backseat to a national championship game.

“COVID is one thing, but it’s the national championship,” said Weingert. “I hate to say I’m not concerned, but it’s the natty.”

The University of Alabama, in anticipation of large numbers of students returning and celebrating a victory in the playoff, Tweeted a message with a photograph of the University’s mascot. In it Big Al was holding a championship trophy. The tweet said that students should avoid large gatherings, wear masks and maintain six foot social distancing. It included a link to a special championship site. A YouTube video featuring Coach Capstone made suggestions about Watch Parties. Needless to say, the parties that the captain referred to would not have taken place in bars and included few people.

The University’s Vice President for Student Life Dr. Myron L. Pope also Tweeted a message on the day of the playoff:

We are very proud of our football program as it prepares to play in the National Championship this evening. Our players + coaches have remained dedicated to the process and have overcome many adversities with class and passion.

Whether cheering on the team live in Miami, in Tuscaloosa or elsewhere, please remember:- Wear your mask.- Avoid parties or any large gatherings and stay 6 feet away from others.“- Make smart decisions before, during and after the game. Any unlawful behavior and/or violations of our health and safety protocols will result in disciplinary action.- Be a good neighbor and respect the impact your actions may have on those around you.

At UA, we are fortunate to have many successes to celebrate, and we expect our students to do so responsibly and safely. Please set the example with safety, passion and class. Roll Tide!

No venue that would allow students to view the game in a safe environment was suggested or provided by the University.

Just days before the game, an article by Patch‘s Ryan Phillips included a statement that was posted on Facebook by DCH Health System Vice President of Marketing and Communication Andy North. North posted:

DCH is focused on doing everything it can to maintain the needed care for the community and has continually advised leaders about the circumstances, including the current strain, so that they can make informed decisions about public policy. We are not in a position, nor is it our role, to make policy decisions for them.

Tuscaloosa’s Mayor Maddox had repeatedly claimed that the city was hamstrung and could not take independent steps without a request from DCH.

Phillips wrote:

The announcement did appear to come as some surprise to Tuscaloosa City Hall, which has maintained that while case numbers have risen to new highs in recent weeks due to the holidays, the hospital system has not requested any additional mandates or restrictions on local businesses to this point other than maintaining those currently in place.

Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox said he was made aware of the Facebook post shortly after it was published and immediately reached out to DCH leadership.

The mayor then said DCH reaffirmed its position that it would notify community leaders if its internal options for capacity, staffing and personal protective equipment were in danger of becoming compromised. He also said he spoke with Tuscaloosa County Commission Chair and Probate Judge Rob Robertson and would be in communication with Northport Mayor Bobby Herndon as the situation develops.

One thing that Maddox has stressed is that few local hospitalizations have involved university students. People in that age range tend to, if infected with the Coronavirus, have milder symptoms. Therefore increased case numbers of University students would be less likely to impact the hospital system. Since the city’s decision on any Covid-19 measures are largely contingent on hospital capacity, the number of infected students is not considered by him to be a major issue. However, in other communities, according to a recent CDC report, there has been a significant community rise in Covid-19 cases when in-person University classes have commenced.

On January 5th, 2021, Jason Morton reported in The Tuscaloosa News that Council member Sonya McKinstry had expressed concern over the city not having considered using the same kind of measures to slow the spread of COVID-19 that had earlier been put into place.

Of particular concern is how residents and college students will celebrate next week should the University of Alabama defeat the Ohio State University in the College Football Playoff national championship game.

Maddox said the measures imposed by City Hall last year came before state regulatory bodies adopted similar, if not more stringent, actions regarding mask usage and bar occupancy.

And while he noted that the recent rise in COVID-19 cases has come while college students have been out-of-town on winter break, he did say that the Tuscaloosa Police Department and University of Alabama Police Department would be working in tandem to limit gatherings Monday night before, during and after the Crimson Tide’s final football game.

On January 8th, 2021, Mayor Maddox Tweeted a message saying:

In the upcoming days around the National Championship Game, we all have a role to play in keeping our community safe. Please continue to follow @ALPublicHealth guidelines including wearing a mask and limiting gathering size as you cheer on the Tide. Thank you and Roll Tide!

On the day of the playoff, on Tuscaloosa Police Department‘s Facebook page, Chief Brent Blankley posted:

The City of Tuscaloosa has something very special to celebrate this evening as Crimson Tide fans cheer on the team in the College Football Playoff National Championship. TPD, UAPD and the ABC Board are working together to ensure the safety of our community members. Cheer, celebrate, and enjoy the success of our team, but please do so responsibly and safely. Roll Tide!

There was a continual police presence on The Strip on the day of the game. They observed the activity that began before noon but did nothing to disperse crowds and did not issue citations for mask infractions. After Alabama’s victory, people swarmed out from the bars and nearby student apartments to fill University Boulevard.

USA Today‘s Chris Thomas wrote:

Videos and photos captured on social media showed hundreds, if not thousands, of people on The Strip celebrating the Crimson Tide’s 52- 24 victory over Ohio State in the College Football Playoff on Monday night. Tuscaloosa Police quickly were dispatched to clear a path through town, according to social media reports. The celebration comes as COVID-19 cases are spiking around the country.

Images posted by Operations Support Specialist Lt. Andy Norris on Twitter show before and after shots of the crowd, when police vehicles drove down University Boulevard.

Emily Enfinger in The Tuscaloosa News wrote:

Fourteen people were arrested and two injuries were reported in Tuscaloosa after Alabama football fans flooded The Strip in celebration of the team’s 18th national championship victory late Monday, officials said Tuesday.

Those arrested faced charges ranging from drug paraphernalia, public intoxication, driving under the influence, disorderly conduct, resisting arrest and obstructing governmental operations, according to officials.

“I think it goes without saying that we are disappointed in seeing the large number of people flood into The Strip area itself,” said Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox in a news conference Tuesday morning. 

Although he did not have an exact estimate of the crowd, he stated it could have been “thousands upon thousands” of people and that the crowd is believed to be “larger than any celebration that we’ve seen in recent memory.”

Tuscaloosa Police Chief Brent Blankley said that the police department backed up to let the crowd celebrate but after 15 minutes, “something shifted.” People began to climb trees, hang from light poles, property was beginning to be damaged and fights were begging to break out, he said.

Two people were reportedly hit with either beer cans or bottles, leaving cuts on their face, Blankley said. 

“We used as little force as possible to disperse that crowd, but people were starting to get hurt inside the crowd. We asked multiple times for people to disperse but they wouldn’t,” he said.

Police units were also used to divide the crowd. Blankley said bottles were thrown at TPD officers and their vehicles as they were trying to divide the crowd.

Had a curfew been declared prior to the game none of the crowd control problems would likely have existed. (In Ohio where there’s a Covid related 10pm statewide curfew, has Ohio State won, there would in all likelihood not have been a similar situation.) But more ominously, will the championship celebration on The Strip in T-Town turn out be a super-spreader event? It is unfortunate that an incredible sports victory could be marred by the behavior of fans on The Strip.

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Stemming the High Tide of Covid in T-Town

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Tuscaloosa’s Mayor Walt Maddox during a Pre-Council meeting on December 22, 2020, said that he was going to meet with the University of Alabama‘s President Dr. Stuart Bell to discuss the impact of students returning to campus. Maddox was concerned about the consequences of the University’s football team winning the National Championship on January 11th.

He said that Tuscaloosa had entered a “dark season” for the pandemic, with mounting local hospitalizations. How would T-Town fare if University students returned to campus to celebrate a college football national championship? The Mayor said that citations from the Tuscaloosa Police Department for not wearing masks or other violations of state and local Covid-19 orders were paid little notice by students. Instead the student non-academic misconduct citations (SNAMs) issued by the University’s police had “more bite, since they would go on student records.

Any visitor to the University of Alabama campus will observe that most students wear masks. During football games most students were masked as well. On a national basis, most college students are behaving responsibly. CNBC‘s Jessica Dickler reported at the end of 2020 that Covid cases on campuses were surging. She wrote that Princeton‘s President Christopher Eisgruber said, “If we test the campus population regularly, and if everyone on campus rigorously adheres to public health guidance about masking, social distancing and other practices, we can welcome a far greater number of students back.” USA Today’s Suzanne Hirt asked, “Are college COVID-19 cases the fault of campuses full of reckless partiers?” She answered, “No.” She wrote that students were being unfairly shamed and blamed.

From the very start of the pandemic, as TIME‘s Katie Reilly wrote, “coronavirus outbreaks have been linked to fraternities.” The idea of a Farm Party in Tuscaloosa was nixed at the last minute. Many of the establishments in T-Town that have had the most egregious violations of Covid-19 regulations are popular student and Greek hangouts. It is certainly arguable that most students affiliated with Greek organizations have behaved as responsibly as other students. But the Greek lifestyle is uniquely associated with the spread of the Coronavirus.

Since over 35 percent of the undergraduate student body at the University of Alabama are Greeks, an extraordinary situation may exist. If, out of the 11,000 Greeks on campus, only a small number are behaving irresponsibly there still could well be a threat to the community’s public safety. The University has previously taken extraordinary steps to curb the impact of Greek life, as AL.com‘s Michael Casagrande reported on August 21, 2020.

Mayor Walt Maddox and University of Alabama President Stuart Bell will discuss steps that the University can take to mitigate the impact of the University on the health of T-Town. Would further restrictions on the campus Greek community, or even a ban on fraternities until the pandemic subsides, be a successful tactic? Could the University further curtail large off campus gatherings of students, at parties and bars? Will the University of Alabama Police Department be called upon to more aggressively enforce state and local Covid orders?

Most T-Town residents will undoubtedly be as enthusiastic as any students at the University, should the Crimson Tide win another National Championship. It would be tragic if, as a consequence of irresponsible celebrating, the further spread of Covid-19 occurred.

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“Covid ain’t going away in 2021.”

Photo by Yaroslav Danylchenko on Pexels.com

After he sent an email to Clay Helms (Alabama’s Deputy Chief of Staff, Director of Elections) asking about about the use of absentee ballots for the upcoming municipal election, John Earl received a reply: “The Governor’s emergency does not extend that far into 2021.”

Earl replied, “Covid ain’t going away in 2021.”

Jason Morton wrote in the Tuscaloosa News:

It’s too early to tell right now, but some local voters hope the exceptions allowed for absentee voting in last month’s general election will extend to next year’s municipal vote.

The Alabama secretary of state’s office said the emergency order that allowed for absentee voting by anyone concerned by the coronavirus did not extend to March 2021.

The city of Tuscaloosa’s city council and board of education election is set for March 2, and some voters believe that’s too early for in-person voting.

“The pandemic isn’t going to go away in 2021,” said Tuscaloosa resident and voter John Earl. “Even if there is an effective vaccine, there should be another year in which people should take precautions.”

Earl, 73, said he reached out to the secretary of state’s office to ask about the absentee voting extension, and he provided The Tuscaloosa News with the response he received from Clay Helms, the deputy chief of staff and director of elections for Secretary of State John Merrill.

Earl, as well as municipal election official and City Clerk Carly Standridge, said they’re hopeful that the governor and secretary of state’s office allows for the same kind of consideration in March.

“I’m 73 and have, to a great extent, been self-isolating for fear of being infected with the coronavirus,” Earl said, noting that University of Alabama students were driven “in droves” by limos to his municipal polling location in 2013. “I don’t know if that situation could arise again, but I refused to vote at the site (in the general election) because of (his polling place) being on campus.”

Even though many people in Alabama are receiving vaccines, people should still be diligent in their personal behavior. That would include, of course, wearing masks and social distancing. But, it also should involve avoiding crowds, like the ones that exist at polling places.

The Montgomery Advertiser‘s Melissa Brown reported that “Alabama will receive just under 41,000 doses in the first round of Pfizer vaccine distribution.” She wrote that Dr. Scott Harris, Alabama Department of Public Health Health Officer, has said that “pandemic precautions must be maintained for the foreseeable future.”

Ryan Phillips wrote in The Patch:

The city of Tuscaloosa will soon request Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey to extend her emergency executive order through March 2 in an effort to allow for the same expansive absentee voting opportunities offered during the November General Election.

Mayor Walt Maddox said his office had already been in contact with the governor’s office and Secretary of State John Merrill, saying without the emergency order, the Secretary of State doesn’t have the ability to allow the city to expand absentee voting for its March 2 municipal election.

Many people believe that any behavior mandated by a government in response to the pandemic somehow limits their “freedom.”

Smith College Professor of Government Martha Ackelsberg wrote an essay in The Conversation about “freedom.” She opined:

The laws and policies that governments enact set the framework for the exercise of our rights. So, inaction on the part of government does not necessarily empower citizens. It can, effectively, take away our power, leaving us less able to act to address our needs.

As Thomas Hobbes recognized almost four centuries ago, if everyone just does what they please, no one can trust anyone. We end up with chaos, uncertainty and a “war of all against all.”

Rights become worthless.

This paradox – of the need for government to enable the effective pursuit of individual aims – is particularly extreme in the situation of COVID-19 and its attendant economic crisis. Amid a rampaging pandemic, people have rights to do many things, but are they really free to exercise them?

People may know, for example, that if everyone wore a mask in the presence of others, maintained social distance and avoided large crowds, it would be relatively safe to be out in public. But that goal cannot be achieved by voluntary individual actions alone, since the benefits are achieved only when most or all of us participate.

The only way to assure that everyone will be wearing a mask — understood as an act of community and collective care, an action taken to protect others, as well as ourselves — is for the government to require mask-wearing because it is needed for the protection of life.

The ability to exercise the rights to work, to shop or to go to school depends upon having a relatively safe public space in which to operate. In turn, that requires all of us to attend to the rights and safety of others, as well as of ourselves.

Government is the means by which such attending — caring — is expressed and accomplished. It is only when people can count on others to be concerned for one another that they can truly be free to act, and exercise their rights, in the public arena.

The state of Alabama has a Safer-at-Home order that will, as reported by WAFF/48, last until January 21, 2021. It requires social distancing and mask wearing. The city of Tuscaloosa has based its own regulations on the state’s order. Although, as Tuscaloosa‘s Mayor Maddox has recently said, “Tuscaloosa is in a danger zone for community spread and hospitalizations,” he does not think that a “lockdown” will be effective. City offices are closed and activities, such as Holidays on the River, have been postponed. He believes that a shutdown would essentially be a “curfew” that would apply only to the city of Tuscaloosa. He said that the “exceptions embedded in federal and states laws” are punitive to small businesses.

But, as professor Ackelsberg has pointed out, the ability to go to school, to work and to shop depends on government providing a safe public space.

Obviously, in T-Town the right to vote without risking one’s health also should be guaranteed by government. And that will depend on whether the state’s emergency executive order will be extended.

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Covid: the Chamber, the City and Christmas in T-Town

Photo by olia danilevich on Pexels.com

On December 7th, 2020, Tuscaloosa News reporter Jason Morton wrote: “With COVID-19 cases on a continual climb in the Tuscaloosa area, city officials are taking initial steps to minimize crowds and reduce gatherings. On Monday, City Hall announced that access to all city-owned facilities would be temporarily limited or halted. The decision comes as DCH Health System reported four straight days of 100 or more inpatients suffering from COVID-19, with a total of 138 listed on Monday.”

Some of the city’s concerns doubtlessly were due to the numbers of city personnel who are out with Covid. But the dramatic increase in Coronavirus cases after the Thanksgiving holiday and Iron Bowl were troubling.

As Jason Morton reported in another Tuscaloosa News story:

With four straight days of 100 or more inpatients at DCH Health System who are battling COVID-19, local health and government officials on Monday urged all residents to remain vigilant against the spread of the novel coronavirus. Andy North described as an “ebb and flow” of patient load, the local health system has not become overwhelmed by the influx of new patients suffering from COVID-19.

No patients, or at least not enough to be statistically relevant, age 24 or younger have died. However, about 5.3% of those in the 50-64 age range have died, based on the latest DCH data.

And while the pending vaccine may help reduce these numbers even further, North said DCH isn’t expecting to have any doses available until the end of the year, at the earliest.

“We are hoping for sooner rather than later,” North said, “because even with the flexibility we’ve put into place, we are under a heavy load.”

Although the use of city facilities is being curtailed, there are no plans to close such places as bars, which are considered by pandemic experts to be Covid hot spots. As Morton reported: “Maddox said there were no immediate plans to institute limitations on businesses or public gatherings at the local level beyond what Gov. Kay Ivey’s latest ‘Safer at Home’ order already requires.”

At the Pre-Council meeting on December 8th, 2020, Mayor Maddox said that he had discussed with the Chief Medical Officer at DCH Dr. Robin Wilson the possibility that cases of Covid-19 will be layered. This would be the case when each holiday period –Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years–brought on a new wave of infections.

It was only at the beginning of December, during the Chamber of Commerce of West Alabama’s annual “State of the Economy” meeting, that speakers bemoaned the effect that Covid regulations had on the economic outlook. Jason Morton wrote:

“We have a lot of the ingredients in place for a recipe for economic growth,” said John Norris V, founder and managing director of wealth and investments with Mountain Brook-based Oakworth Capital Bank. “The biggest impediment to U.S. growth going forward is going to be our politicians.”

“The enemy is us. The enemy is the politicians and whether they’re going to shut down the economy again.”

The city’s reluctance to go beyond the state of Alabama‘s “Safer At Home” order may have had legal justifications. There were two City Council members at least who had justified their approval of a liquor license for the University of Alabama‘s Kappa Delta Farm Party on the basis that the city might have been sued. (The party was eventually nixed by the University though.) WSFA/12‘s Kelvin Reynolds reported, “Both City Council [Kip Tyner and Sonya McKinstry] members said the city could have been at risk of being sued if they didn’t approve the license under the circumstances.”

Throughout the country and the world, for that matter, either closures or strict limitations have been placed on many businesses. 84% of California‘s population, as reported in the LA Times, is affected by a massive shutdown.

Mayor Walt Maddox, if nothing else, is certainly a politician. He seems to be caught between a rock and a hard place. On one hand, there are conditions that have warranted shutting down city facilities. On the other, is the Chamber, where one of its speakers said that politicians are the “enemies.” Of course, if the healthcare system ever reaches a critical enough state, Maddox will have no choice in instituting another “lockdown.” The Chamber will doubtlessly support another such necessary lockdown.

During the last lockdown, essential services were maintained. People were still allowed to go to work, shop for groceries, exercise outdoors, have their cars worked on, go to doctors, and make deposits in banks. But businesses such as restaurants and bars weren’t allowed to operate. Many of the hardest hit businesses were small and locally owned. As a consequence, the city had a business relief program and even a relief package specifically for bars.

Many of the problems associated with bars involved those who had large numbers of University students. The city had occupancy limits, but some establishments were still allowed to have as many as 150 patrons. In many cities there was a cap for the number of people allowed at bars. The city’s legal staff has insisted that it is constrained by the guidelines of the state and Alabama Beverage Control. The mayor has also repeatedly emphasized the inability of the Tuscaloosa Police Department to enforce the Covid laws.

What may ultimately be a redeeming force in combating the spread of the Coronavirus will be the University of Alabama‘s enforcement of limitations on off-campus student gatherings. University police have already issued many student non-academic misconduct citations (SNAMs) for such things as house parties. The decision of the University to revoke permission for the Kappa Delta Farm Party was a good sign. Will the University be able to continue to lay down the law and impose penalties that will deter large gatherings at house parties or bars? It may well be that only the University has any true jurisdiction when it comes to regulating student behavior. Many University students will stay in T-Town for the holidays, although most will leave Tuscaloosa. Hopefully the University’s police force will still have a presence during the holiday period.

Approximately 25,000 University students should be returning to Tuscaloosa in January and whatever respite their absence may have provided will be over just as soon as the year 2021 begins. To a great extent Tuscaloosa‘s ability to cope with the Coronavirus will depend on the behavior of University students. That will be largely up to how well the University of Alabama‘s administration can control its students.

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