Good News & Bad News

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Although nearly seven percent of University of Alabama students have tested positive for the Coronavirus, as Al.com‘s Michael Casagrande reported, there was a reduction in the positives last week. He wrote that the “number of daily positive tests dipped to 42 over the previous seven days after that figure sat at 125 last week.”

Still, the University of Alabama leads the nation’s schools in the number of students who’ve tested positive with over 2,000 reported cases. On September 10, 2020, Michael Innis-Jimenez‘s blog The UA Sentinel compared the school’s total infections to the total numbers in several states:

The last reported 7-day total of newly infected UA students is greater than the last 7-day totals for the entire states of Wisconsin, Tennessee, Indiana, Kentucky, New York Iowa Arizona, Washington, Nebraska, Mississippi, Kansas, Arkansas, Maryland, New Jersey, Utah, South Carolina, Minnesota, Colorado, Massachusetts, South Dakota, Nevada, West Virginia, Oregon, Hawaii, Connecticut, New Mexico, Montana, Rhode Island, Alaska, Wyoming, Vermont, Delaware, North Dakota, New Hampshire, Maine, and the State of Alabama. That’s right. UA has more than the State of Alabama because the University of Alabama is NOT properly reporting these positives to the Alabama Department of Public Health as required to do. If UA was a state, the last seven days of available data would make UA the state with the 15th highest total. Take a second to absorb that. The University of Alabama’s 7-day total puts UA with more new infections than 35 other American states. 35! 

Innis-Jimenez was featured in a September 12, 2020 article by Lauren Aratani in The Guardian “Quarantine dorms’ and suspensions: US universities fight Covid surges.” Aratani wrote:

Michael Innis-Jiminez, a professor of American Studies at the University of Alabama, said that many faculty members at his university have been wondering why the institution has not taken more serious actions as cases on campus have risen to nearly 2,000. Instead, the university’s top medical dean said that he was “cautiously optimistic” as new cases a day dropped from 164 to 125 last Friday. Some students were forced out of their dorms last month as the university moved to dedicate more dorms to quarantine students.

Innis-Jiminez said there were specific concerns about how the university will be sending students home for Thanksgiving as in-person classes are scheduled to end right before the holiday. Universities have already come under fire for sending students home after outbreaks on campus, potentially sending the virus to students’ home communities.

News about the new dip in positives at the University was released on the same day that Dr. Deborah Birx, the head of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, visited T-Town. Michael Casagrande reported:

She complimented the barbeque, the university’s response to the outbreak and looked to the future. “I can’t say Roll Tide because I’m going to other SEC schools,” she said with a grin at the end of her prepared remarks, “but I’ll say it anyway and wish you best of luck in this football season.”

An article in Sports Illustrated, published on September 11, 2020, by Ross Dellenger connected the dots between college town infection rates and football fan attendence. He wrote:

According to data from the CDC, seven of the top eight states in highest infection rates are home to at least one SEC team, and nine of the league’s 14 college towns are producing enough cases daily to be deemed sites with “uncontrollable spread,” according to the Harvard Global Health Institute. Harvard’s metric uses a seven-day rolling average of daily new virus cases per 100,000 people. Anything over 25 cases is considered uncontrollable.

Tuscaloosa is arguably one of the college towns most associated with college football. Dellenger wrote about the football stadiums in Alabama:

Some medical experts believe stadiums will become super spreaders of a virus that is already impacting a community or state. Take for instance Alabama, which has the potential to produce some of the biggest crowds in America this fall. Three of its five FBS programs are allowing per-game capacities of 36,000 (UAB), 20,400 (Alabama) and 17,500 (Auburn). Though not expected to max its capacity, UAB is allowing 50% attendance after moving its games to the 71,600-seat Legion Field.

The city of Tuscaloosa‘s Mayor Walt Maddox has been very concerned about the impact of reduced football attendance on the city’s finances. What would a football weekend be without T-Town‘s watering holes? After a fourteen day “ban,” he relaxed the conditions that he had placed on bars. As Jason Morton reported in the Tuscaloosa News:

These changes take effect as local coronavirus cases continue an overall decline in Tuscaloosa County.

While the University of Alabama added 846 student coronavirus cases Friday to its UA System Dashboard numbers, bringing the campus total to 2,047, this increase marked a decline in daily averages, with Thursday’s student positives dropping to 65 for the day, according to the latest data provided by UA.

Maddox said enforcement and coronavirus-related data would be analyzed daily to determine the effectiveness of the latest executive order, but if the trends hold true then additional relaxations could come in the near future.

Bars were reopened on September 8, 2020, with “50 percent of capacity, as determined by the fire marshal, not to exceed 100 people.” Maddox said that enforcement of regulations would be “stepped up as the week gives way to the weekend.”

However on the Tuesday that bars reopened, WBRC Fox 6‘s reporter Ugochi Iloka posted images of unmasked, non-socially distanced crowds gathered outside of one popular student bar.

WAAY/31 ran a story on August 21, 2020, about the University of Alabama having cancelled all student events. The Crimson White‘s Jessa Reid-Bolling reported that on August 31, 2020, the moratorium on student events had been extended beyond the originally planned 14 days. Reid-Bolling wrote “The original moratorium was issued on Aug. 24 at the same time that Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox had announced that bars would be closed and bar services would be suspended for two weeks.” The University’s extension was attributed to the numbers of students who had been issued “conduct referrals.”

On September 10, 2020 the Montgomery Advertiser‘s Melissa Brown reported that “at least 639 University of Alabama students have been sanctioned in recent weeks for breaking COVID-19 restrictions in Tuscaloosa.” She wrote:

A UA spokesperson said Thursday that a suspension of one student organization is pending, while 33 individual students have been “effectively” suspended from campus while their “conduct cases proceed through due process.

While the University was extending its moratorium the city was reopening bars. The University did relax some of its restrictions. Effective on September 14th, 2020, students were allowed to once again use study spaces and dining areas, “with strict adherence to safety guidelines.” Students in the same residence halls were allowed to visit each other’s rooms.

Katherine Ellen Foley in Quartz explained the rationale behind social distancing. She wrote that six foot of social distancing was based on guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. She pointed out that, while the World Health Organization recommended only three feet of separation, that “a particle fluid dynamicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology suggested that people might do well to stay more than 27 feet apart to avoid infecting one another.”

It is remarkable that the University of Alabama has required that any indoor gatherings have no more than fifty people.

There will be no large student organized events. This includes band parties, swaps, formals, out-of-town and off-campus parties or large gatherings of any kind. The guidelines for indoor events are no more than 50 individuals, with no more than 100 for outdoor events.  Most importantly, attendance limits depend on the distance capacity of the space, so each event space is different and may not allow for even 50 individuals, depending on the ability to social distance within the space. (my emphasis) These restrictions may be adjusted, up or down, if risks associated with COVID-19 change.

Yet, if students at the University were to go to an off-campus bar, based on the city of Tuscaloosa‘s new order, they may find themselves indoors with up to 100 people. A chart that the city provided breaks down the numbers for bars in terms of occupancy. There are a number of bars in T-Town that could conceivably accommodate 100 people.

The Business Insider‘s Conner Perrett wrote an article “Business owners in college towns are ‘trying to do everything’ they can to stay afloat” about the impact of COVID-19 pandemic on college towns. Although T-Town isn’t mentioned, Tuscaloosa is certainly just as impacted as Chapel Hill, North Carolina or Athens, Ohio. The emphasis on re-opening student bars in Tuscaloosa may have its basis in Mayor Maddox‘s idea of an “experience economy” where bars are a vital part of the recreation sector of Tuscaloosa‘s economy.

Bars, however, have been hot spots for the Coronavirus. NPR‘s Will Stone reported that “Public health experts and top health officials, including the Dr. Tony Fauci, say the evidence is abundantly clear: When bars open, infections tend to follow.” Many bars also have unique problems associated with ventilation and smoking, as an article in the Conversation “What a smoky bar can teach us about the ‘6-foot rule’ during the COVID-19 pandemic” points out.

Perhaps, rather than depending on the city of Tuscaloosa to regulate bars, the University of Alabama might have done as the University of Wisconsin did. Undergraduate students were essentially locked down after a rise in COVID-19 cases.

Chancellor Rebecca Blank on September 7, 2020, issued a directive:

A growing number of COVID-19 cases have been detected, particularly among students living off-campus, and can be linked to situations where people did not wear face coverings or practice physical distancing. We see this reflected in the data, but it’s also apparent in social media posts and in conversations with students who have tested positive. Unfortunately, too many students have chosen to host or participate in social gatherings that seem to demonstrate a high disregard for the seriousness of this virus and the risk to our entire community.

Undergraduates were restricted to activities such as going to class and shopping for food. Students would be held “accountable for their actions on and off campus, up to and including emergency suspension. Members of the community can report unsafe behavior.”

Amanda Todd with the university’s Vice Chancellor of Finance and Administration office responded to an inquiry about bars, “Bars in Madison are closed, except for outdoor seating.  But since the drinking age is 21, it’s unlikely that undergrads would be accessing them in any case.  In addition, given the Chancellor’s directive to stay home with limited exceptions for going to class, medical appointments, we would not want to see our undergrads congregating even outdoors with non-alcoholic beverages.”

To the extent that the steps taken at the University of Wisconsin worked, the school was perhaps able to reduce student related contagion without closing its bars.

Whether the city of Tuscaloosa will have made its community safer by its new order on bar regulation may be reflected in the DCH Health System Covid-19 dashboard, which showed an increase in patients after the Labor Day weekend.

With the University of Alabama‘s first home football game scheduled for October 3, 2020, hopefully the diligence of both the city and University will have resulted in a good outcome.

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The Crimson Tide’s Greatest Football Coach

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Alabama’s head football coach Nick Saban is tied with the legendary late coach Paul “Bear” Bryant when it comes to the numbers of national championships. But in terms of moral leadership Saban is doubtlessly #1!

Nick Saban led a march of Alabama athletes on August 31st, 2020 that put an exclamation mark on his previous statements on racial equality and justice. The March event was in response to a police officer in Kenosha, Wisconsin having shot Jacob Blake seven times in the back on August 23rd. Blake’s shooting inspired protests throughout the country that were similar to those that occurred after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on May 25, 2020. Floyd had died after a police officer had held him in a choke hold for over eight minutes. His crime was passing a counterfeit $20 bill.

Saban made a statement on racial justice after Floyd’s death: “We’re at an important moment for our country, and now is the time for us to choose kindness, tolerance, understanding, empathy, and most importantly … it’s time to love each other. Every life is precious, and we must understand we have so many more things that unite us than divide us.”

Former Alabama football safety Rashad Johnson had declared, “A change will and is coming!!” He was joined by Offensive Lineman Chris Owns who said “Change is coming from this generation whether you like it or not. Enough is enough.”

Saban and Alabama football players participated in a video written by Alabama left tackle Alex Leatherwood:

We are a team, Black, white and brown. Together, we are a family. We are brothers who represent ourselves, our families, our hometowns, our university and our country.

We stand on the shoulders of giants — our grandparents and parents, our ancestors, our heroes and Alabama alumni, and former players who have changed the world. Beginning on our historic campus, we speak as one, acknowledging our history, honoring their legacy and building a better, more just future.

Saban’s participation in the march after Blake’s shooting from the Mal Moore Athletic Facility to Foster Auditorium on August, 31st, 2020, was a dramatic symbol of generational change. Former Alabama Governor George Wallace‘s infamous June 11, 1963 “Stand In The Schoolhouse Door” had occurred at Foster Auditorium. Wallace had attempted to prevent the enrollment of two black students, James Hood and Vivian Malone. The Alabama National Guard had been activated by President John F. Kennedy to insure that the students would not be blocked. In his 1963 inaugural address Wallace had proclaimed that there would be “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” The many trophies from Saban’s era of football victories are enshrined at the athletic facility. Foster Auditorium is an National Historic Landmark.

Saban’s statement at the video press conference that occurred two days after the march was reported by Al.com‘s Mike Rodak:

We’re not letting this die. We’re making a list of things that our players can do and can encourage other people to do in our own community, some of which they mentioned on Monday.

So this is just not, ’We came over there on Monday and we had a march,’ and now it’s over. It’s, ’Hey, we challenged everybody to do things to make a difference and now we’re going to challenge ourselves to do the same things,’ me included. And everybody can do that in their own way.

During the live streamed video conference, a handful of people made comments that were highly critical of Saban. One of them posted, “Saban is going down with Black Lives Matter. F**k u.”

Saban was aware of the negative criticism of his advocacy for racial justice. He said:

I don’t have an opinion about everybody else’s opinion. I don’t have an opinion about — we try to do the right things. We try to provide positive leadership for our players. Like I said on Monday, we’re trying to elevate our players’ chances of having success in their life, through their personal development [and] academic support so they can graduate and develop a career, and what kind of career they can develop as a football player.

But a part of that is also providing leadership to elevate people around them by using their platform in a positive way.

Al.com‘s Joseph Goodman wrote:

There is only one thing stronger than racism in the state of Alabama, and that’s Crimson Tide football.

Racism doesn’t have Najee Harris in the backfield with Alex Leatherwood and Chris Owens blocking up front on the offensive line.

This summer, members of the Alabama football team — players who will go down as legends — have found a way to harness their team’s enormous power and use it like real-life superheroes in a fight against this state’s eternal evil.

The Tuscaloosa New‘s Gary Cosby, Jr. commented:

Just as all things that have happened under Saban’s watch have unfolded with class, so also this march and rally unfolded. It is a mark of his love for his players that he stood with them and offered the first speech in front of Foster Auditorium.

But some on social media cried out as if Saban had stabbed them in the heart because he stood at the forefront as his football team marched. They were, of course, angry that Saban was standing for social justice. I wonder, do they not realize, that if one does not stand up for social justice, he is actually standing up for discrimination? Is that really what these critics want?

The idea that the Alabama football team represented a “Crimson Tide” is attributed to the Birmingham News Sports Editor Hugh Roberts who used the term in his coverage of an Alabama-Auburn game played in Birmingham in 1907.

Martin Luther King, Jr. in his I Have A Dream speech on August 1963 at the March On Washington referred to a biblical passage in Amos 5:24: “We will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream!”

Under Nick Saban‘s leadership, perhaps a mighty Crimson Tide has washed away some of the University of Alabama‘s sins of the past and justice will finally roll down. There now actually may be a new meaning for the popular Alabama sports cheer Roll Tide Roll!

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T-Town decides to let it burn

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The University of Alabama at Birmingham‘s infectious disease expert Dr. Michael Saag once said that bars were the fuel that fed the spread of COVID-19.

After closing bars in T-Town for fourteen days, Mayor Walt Maddox decided to reopen them on September 8th.

At the time of his decision 1,899 University of Alabama students had been infected. Since August 19th, nearly 1 in 15 University students had been infected.

The press release from the City of Tuscaloosa that announced the amended executive order gave this information:

Based on continued communication with The University of Alabama and the release of new data from The University of Alabama System on Friday evening, progress can be seen in the decline in daily averages since the last report. The City will continue to move forward with a measured and balanced response to protect our community’s health care system and economy.

“Two weeks ago, a surge of coronavirus cases on UA’s campus was threatening the continuation of in-person instruction for the Fall, plus creating potential long term impacts on DCH Regional Hospital,” Mayor Walt Maddox said. “With Fall in serious jeopardy, and at the request of the University, immediate and decisive action was required to protect our healthcare system and thousands of jobs.

Maddox had hinted in a Tuesday Council session on September 1st that he might modify his executive order. He said that he might make the decision as early as Friday. An economic relief measure for bars, the Lounge Assistance Program, was scheduled to go before the Council on September 15th.

Maddox had expressed a lot of concern over restaurants that converted into bars in evening hours. They were singled out in the new order. Accommodations were also made for students waiting outside of bars.

The order stipulated that “the City’s Infrastructure and Public Services Department will convert the space dedicated to street parking on The Strip to pedestrian right-of-way to allow for greater area outside for those waiting in lines to have the ability to practice appropriate social distancing. This conversion will occur each evening beginning at 6:01 p.m.”

A good deal of the impetus for the initial order that closed the bars came from the crowds that were seen outside of student bars. Large numbers of people were observed who were not wearing masks or socially distancing. The city took action in response to the University of Alabama‘s attempts to control the Coronavirus outbreak on campus.

Right before the city’s decision to reopen bars, the University of Alabama had extended its ban on in-person events until September 13th. It had already issued over 400 citations for COVID-19-related violations. The University informed students that off campus gatherings were prohibited by law and “University rule.” The school had previously allowed approved indoor gatherings on campus of no more than 50 people.

The City of Tuscaloosa’s new rules said that all “ABC lounge licensed establishments may operate at a reduced interior capacity of 50% of their occupancy as established by the fire marshal, not to exceed 100 persons.” The occupancy restrictions, which were not based on CDC standards, allowed twice the number of people indoors than the University had at first allowed for approved gatherings on campus.

Bars that were not licensed as lounges were required to “suspend walk up bar service and only allow alcohol sales to seated customers.” Customers would “not be allowed to enter the premises unless seating is available.”

In spite of the city’s claims about a decline in “daily averages” in the COVID-19 data, there was still a good deal of uncertainty. Al.com‘s Leada Gore reported:

Alabama could see more than 6,000 coronavirus deaths by January 2021, according to a key national forecast.

The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington forecasts the state will have 6,174 COVID-19 deaths by Jan. 1, 2021. That death toll could grow to 7,748 if social distancing mandates – including mask wearing – were eased. Universal masking, however, defined as 95% mask usage in public spaces, would drop that figure to 3,988 deaths.

NPR‘s Elissa Nadworny wrote that the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, which was considered a “potential model for reopening campuses,” had announced a two week lock down for undergraduates.

According to Nadworthy:

The University of Illinois has one of the largest mass testing programs of any American institution. The school is conducting, on average, between 10,000 and 15,000 saliva-based tests for COVID-19 daily, at times accounting for more than 2% of all testing done in the U.S. The decision to clamp down on students’ movements calls into question whether any amount of resources and safety precautions makes it safe to reopen college campuses.

Al.com‘s Michael Casagrande reported on what Dr. Ricky Friend, the Dean of the University of Alabama’s College of Community Health Sciences, had said about the University’s decision not to end in-person classes:

“From an epidemiologic standpoint, the 18- to 25-year old group is not going to suffer much disease burden,” Friend said. “But they will spread the virus and it’s incumbent of every campus member — faculty, staff, students — to practice [University] guidelines wherever they go.”

Al.com‘s Conner Sheet‘s article “‘You don’t exist’: Inside UA’s COVID-19 isolation dorms” painted a stark picture of campus life under quarantine. He said that daily life in an “Alabama isolation dorm can be boring and bleak.” He wrote:

In recent days, students’ family members and Tuscaloosa residents who are not UA students, faculty or staff have called for the university to institute additional measures to ensure it is doing everything possible to ensure more students and locals don’t contract COVID-19.

Some believe that the majority of sick students should not remain on campus after receiving positive test results.

Reportedly hundreds of University students withdrew from school before tuition payments were due.

University of Alabama professor Michael Innis-Jimenez wrote an open letter to University of Alabama officials that was published in Al.com. Innis-Jimenez called for measures “to protect the health of all of us in Tuscaloosa and home communities”:

1. Move all instruction online.

2. Test ALL students for COVID-19 at university expense.

3. Start a staggered move-out (over 3 weeks) of all students who test negative. Recommend that they isolate at home for two weeks and notify the receiving state’s department of health that they are traveling from a known hot-spot.

4. Isolate ALL students (regardless of if they live on or off campus) in university isolation space at university expense. This includes meals and basic living accessories including furniture, microwave oven, and legitimate isolation from other students and non-medical employees. Students should stay in isolation until a doctor deems they are no longer infectious.

5. If COVID-19 positive students refuse to remain in isolation and/or their parents pick them up, assist them in packing in a way that minimizes the danger to others and immediately notify the receiving state’s department of that the COVID positive and possibly infectious student is returning home.

A petition from the United Campus Workers of Alabama includes this statement;

According to the September 4th UA System Covid-19 Dashboard update, 846 students have tested positive for the virus at the University of Alabama since August 28th, bringing UA’s cumulative case total to over 2,000 students. Many colleges and universities across the country with infection levels far below UA’s are shifting to only online classes in order to protect students and workers from infection. For weeks, UA has insisted “nothing has gone wrong” despite the hundreds of students who have been infected by the virus, quarantined in substandard conditions, and disciplined by the university. All the while, local and national media have run dozens of stories on UA’s rising case count and administrative missteps.

As our case numbers continue to rise, the UA administration must take responsibility for the unsafe situations in which they are putting students, workers, and the Tuscaloosa community. Regardless of its plans for the future of on-campus instruction this semester, UA must operate more transparently and responsibly in the best interests of students, workers and the local community.

In an op-ed in the University’s student newspaper The Crimson White Staff columnist Kelby Hutchinson called for the resignation of University President Stuart R Bell and “a formal apology to the student body for the greed that drove them to put human lives at risk for the benefit of their bottom line.”

The University’s best and brightest minds have labored long and hard on its plans to cope with the Coronavirus. The University has spent millions of dollars in Covid related infrastructure improvements. It has presented highly detailed instructions to students on what they are expected to do.

The University’s Student Government Association President Demarcus Joiner asked students to “continue abiding by the health and safety protocols that keep us all safe.”

The lyrics of Jerry Garcia‘s song “Deal” described a card game:

Since it costs a lot to win, and even more to lose,
You and me bound to spend some time wond’rin’ what to choose.
Goes to show, you don’t ever know,
Watch each card you play and play it slow,
Wait until that deal come round,
Don’t you let that deal go down, no, no.

There is a lot at stake in how the city and university’s plans pan out. With any luck they will be playing a winning hand.

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Bars — the gasoline that fuels Coronavirus?

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The University of Alabama at Birmingham‘s infectious disease expert Dr. Michael Saag was quoted by Al.com‘s Michael Casagrande:

If you give it fuel and you give it opportunity, it’s going to take off,” Saag said. “And that’s what we’ve seen and that’s why the sentinel testing is so important such that if we can monitor and find an outbreak, a pocket, it’s very much like they’re doing in California right now in trying to control wildfires. The idea is to catch it before it spreads widely because once it gets into widespread, it becomes much more difficult to bring under control.”

Casagrande concluded, “The City of Tuscaloosa and University of Alabama determined the bar scene was that gasoline.”

One phenomenon that has been consistent throughout the country is that Greeks on university campuses have some of the highest infection rates. (Universities such as Troy and Auburn in Alabama, schools in Florida and elsewhere have as well placed the onus for rising infections on Greeks on campus.)

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution‘s ArLuther Lee wrote that Tuscaloosa’s Mayor Walt Maddox had said, “The truth is that fall in Tuscaloosa is in serious jeopardy.” Lee reported that university officials claimed that the “rapid rise in cases was particular among fraternities and sororities.”

The paper “Heavy Drinking in College Students: Who Is at Risk and What Is Being Done About It?” published in the National Library of Medicine deals with patterns of drinking by those in Greek organizations.

It could be reasonably concluded that the most problematic bars in T-Town have had predominantly Greek clientele. The high rates of infections among Greeks on campus may well be associated with activities at student bars.

Perhaps because of fears that bars could be closed in Auburn as they were in Tuscaloosa, two student bars in that community voluntarily closed their doors, as Sara Palczewski reported in the Opelika-Auburn News.

Some bar owners in Tuscaloosa blamed students, according to Mark Hughes Cobb‘s article in The Tuscaloosa News. At Tuscaloosa‘s first city Council meeting after the mayor’s executive order closing bars, local bar owners expressed their dismay.

Some of the bar owners who made comments at the meeting claimed that they had always scrupulously observed the safety measures required by state’s orders on the operation of bars. Bars owners that did not have student patrons complained that they were unfairly included in the city’s order on closing bars. One asked if, instead of closing bars, if the city could have allowed bars to exclude minors from their premises. City Attorney Glenda Webb said that the city was unable to enforce any age restrictions. Minors who are nineteen years of age by state law are currently allowed into bars.

Had the bars and hybrid bar/restaurants that have had problems associated with students voluntarily closed their doors, as was done in Auburn, perhaps the bars that are frequented by permanent residents of Tuscaloosa could have remained open.

At the same time that the city of Tuscaloosa was closing its bars, the University of Alabama regained its position as the nation’s number one party school according to the Princeton Review.

Al.com‘s Ken Whitmire opined:

It’s a constant of the universe that college students will do dumb things.

I’m trying to keep all that in mind when I see pictures from Gallettes in Tuscaloosa or Skybar in Auburn, where maskless college students have packed the bars in the middle of a pandemic, social distancing be damned.

A resolution before the City Council might well be called the “Bail Out The Bars” resolution. It will approve as much as $400,000 in temporary economic assistance to bars and restaurants

It states that: “The University of Alabama has taken on -campus measures to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Those measures include the cancellation of all non-academic events, the closing of dining rooms, and restrictions in access to fraternity and sorority houses and the University of Alabama recognizes there are areas of student gatherings beyond the University’ s control.”

The resolution further states that “bars and restaurants present a unique risk for the spread of COVID- 19 based upon the length of time people spend in close proximity indoors and the inability to wear a face covering while eating and drinking and there is a concern patrons of such establishments are not complying with the State Health Officers Order by failing to wear face coverings and to observe the social distancing requirement to maintain at least six feet of separation.”

Is Tuscaloosa caught between a rock and a hard place? Local bars, that have had no problems with college students, have been forced to close in order that the University of Alabama can continue to offer in person instruction. This is due, to some great extent, on laws that allow minors to enter bars. And things are complicated further by a widespread belief that laws on underaged drinking can be circumvented. Tuscaloosa, unlike its sister college town Oxford, Mississippi, has never taken major steps to enforce preventing underaged drinking.

Maybe the crisis that the pandemic has created should be considered a wake up call for Tuscaloosa to finally get serious about its problem with underaged drinking?

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Barring a Miracle, will the spread of COVID-19 end?

T-Town has closed its bars–for fourteen days at least.

Al.com columnist Kyle Whitmire had been begging Alabama’s Governor Kay Ivy to close bars on Twitter. “It’s probably too late, but if you don’t shut down the bars in Auburn and Tuscaloosa — forget football season — we’re not going to have college much longer.”

The City of Tuscaloosa didn’t wait on the state to take action. On August 24th, it participated in a joint press conference with the University of Alabama to announce the closing of bars.

Held on the lawn on the side of the University’s rowing facility, preparations for the conference slightly resembled the way chairs might be set up for a funeral. Many students certainly were grieving after it was announced that bars would be closed.

Closing T-Town‘s watering holes followed nationwide publicity about large crowds that had gathered outside of bars on the weekend before the school began classes for the Fall semester.

As Montgomery Advertiser‘s Melissa Brown reported, 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 soon announced new directives concerning the safety and well-being of the campus community. Brown wrote:

Students soon received revised guidelines, which include additional restrictions at Greek houses, in dorms and a 14-day ban on student events outside of classroom instruction.

UA’s new restrictions focus on residential buildings, which include Greek houses and dorms. Visitors are now restricted in both, and common areas must be closed. 

Greek houses are now required to offer meals in “grab-n-go” form. 

Off-campus residents were also warned that any gatherings would violate university guidelines, as well as the law. Students could face “escalated” consequences, up to and including suspension.

Brown pointed out that faculty members had complained that the university had not provided enough information about the facts that its decisions were being based on.

AL.com‘s Michael Casagrande quoted what the university’s vice president for Student Life Myron Pope had said in a meeting with student leaders:

“Just in the last few days as we’ve tested at Coleman Coliseum and the Student Health Center, we’ve seen the numbers jump up from 1 percent to 4 percent to 5 percent. And in one particular case, I think it was Coleman Coliseum (Thursday), actually it might be the Student Health Center, we saw 29 percent of the students who tested were positive.”

Pope’s statement immediately prompted a response from the university’s president Bell:

“Earlier today, our Vice President of Student Life, Myron Pope, had a conversation with student leaders. It is disturbing to see statements from that conversation taken out of context. The quoted positivity rate is grossly misleading as presented. The positivity rate attributed to Myron deals with a sub-group of students who identified as symptomatic or exposed to someone with COVID-19. Such samples are in no way reflective of the positivity rate of the campus community. Any attempt to compare these figures to our entry testing of more than 30,000 students is misguided. Campus-wide re-entry test results remain around 1% overall.”

The staff of the University of Alabama‘s student newspaper The Crimson White had just published an editorial “Our View: No, President Bell, we won’t be your PR.”

Students have taken the University’s requirements as suggestions solely because administration has as well. The return plan has purposely avoided aforementioned important aspects, which leave a portion of the UA population living in uncertainty. It is impossible to return to campus safety if all identities aren’t even important enough to be included in a campus wide return plan. We ask President Bell to do his part in ensuring all students, faculty and staff adhere to the PPE and social distancing requirements. That’s the only way we can truly stay “Still Tide Together.”

Alabama Political Reporter‘s Josh Moon warned that student behavior at both of the state’s major institutions of higher education might lead to the end of on-campus instruction. “Both Auburn and Alabama reported extremely low positivity rates for students who were tested either shortly after arriving on campus or in the days leading up. Those rates appear to be increasing sharply as more testing is conducted on campus.”

Soon Twitter became all atwitter. Kyle Whitmire Tweeted that there would be a joint University/City of Tuscaloosa press conference. “I’m hearing the city will likely announce the closure of bars and bar service at restaurants.”

Indeed Tuscaloosa’s Mayor Walt Maddox announced at the press conference held that morning that bars would be closed. Gary Cosby wrote in the Tuscaloosa News:

“The truth is, fall in Tuscaloosa is in serious jeopardy,” Maddox said during a joint news conference with officials from the University held Monday at the Manderson Landing boathouse. “As mayor, my first responsibility is to protect the health, safety and welfare of this community and of every person that is living here, studying here or working here.”

“The rising COVID cases we have seen in recent days is unacceptable and if unchecked threatens our ability to complete the semester on campus,” UA President Stuart Bell said, referring to 531 positive tests since August 19. “As we began this year we had very robust testing, so we know that our students that showed up here all tested negative. What we have seen is an increase in those numbers. What we are trying to do now, certainly with our general student body, is flatten that (growth) curve.”

Ricky Friend, the dean of UA’s College of Community Health Sciences, said that his department had led the effort to test students who returned to campus.  

“We encountered many students who have been exposed since returning to campus, particularly in the Greek system,” Friend said. “The trend continued throughout the week and now has reached levels that require a significant intervention.” 

At the press conference it was also announced that the university system’s COVID-19 dashboard would be up later in the day. After an initial crash, the dashboard reported the numbers of cases on campus.

The Crimson White‘s article about the dashboard by Jessica Reid Bolling and Keely Brewer gave these details:

The University of Alabama System released results of COVID-19 testing on Monday, showing The University of Alabama has had 531 cumulative cases among students, faculty and staff since August 19. 

The UA System dashboard for this data originally showed 568 positive cases at the University since Jan. 1 when it went online at 5 p.m. It was later updated to show 531 cases at the University. 

Currently, the University of Alabama’s positive cases account for about 94% of cumulative positive cases system-wide. 

SafeReturnUA, the “UA Community Organizing for a Safe Return to Campus,” has been expressing concerns about the “unacceptable numbers” reported by the university. The organization said that data for faculty and staff had not been included in the initial dashboard numbers. They Tweeted that “according to an email sent by faculty senate president Rona Donahoe, the majority of student cases are off campus and have led to students returning home to quarantine. 75 on campus isolation beds are full as of yesterday morning.

The University of Alabama Student Government Association‘s President Demarcus Joiner expressed optimism that his fellow students would cooperate with the university and city:

Today in his press conference, Dr. Bell asked all of us to “take a look in the mirror” and ask how we could personally help in the fight against COVID-19.

It reminded me of the great Michael Jackson, whose song “Man in the Mirror” wisely told us “If you want to make the world a better place, take a look at yourself, and then make a change.”

I know I’m grateful for the chance to help make the world a better place by making these simple choices, each and every day.

However, as the reporter for CBS/42‘s Malique Rankin observed, not all University of Alabama students were as willing to “look in the mirror” as Joiner was. She Tweeted:

Covering the bar shutdowns happening in Tuscaloosa— and being greeted by some very rude students. Getting flicked off. People screaming “stupid b*tch” and “f*ck Walt Maddox” at us. We’re on the sidewalk. In a public space. Just doing our jobs.

Unsure why these students decided to direct their anger at us. We don’t work for the mayor. We don’t work for the bars. We are just covering a story.

Another student yelled at us, “thanks for shutting us down news people.” For the record, I don’t have that authority.

Mayor Walt Maddox’s executive order stipulated that all establishments with Alabama Beverage Control lounge alcohol licenses in Tuscaloosa cannot sell liquor. Restaurants can only sell alcohol to seated customers. Some places however that sell liquor are hybrid bar/restaurants. As long as there is food service, it would appear that seated customers can order pitchers of beer or mixed drinks.

The news about bar closings would not be complete without a perspective from a sports writer. Cecil Hurt in the Montgomery Advertiser opined:

The announcement lacked the visual drama of Carrie A. Nation, the Prohibition warrior of the previous century, smashing bar tables and whiskey bottles with her dreaded hatchet. Instead, it was Walt Maddox at a podium Monday, announcing a two-week shutdown of Tuscaloosa bars.

The move is experimental — Maddox conceded that “no one knows” any certain formula for stopping the spread of COVID-19.

The debate about that move has quickly turned political. There are two legitimate sides to the argument, which can be summarized as the health and safety community on the one hand and the needs of the Tuscaloosa economy on the other. Whether bar owners deserve any more blame for opening than UA does for bringing 30,000 of the bars’ best customers back to town is a fair question.

Every day draws an SEC season closer but nothing is definite yet At some point, inevitably will create a definite “yes” or “no.” A “yes” would be great news for Tuscaloosa but if it comes in the next two weeks, there won’t be any champagne corks popping in town.

Hurt may be right. But the ultimate question that should be asked in T-Town is: If laws on underaged drinking have been long ignored then why should anyone expect social distancing and mask orders to be obeyed?

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T-Town’s Back In The News!

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Not long ago, articles about alleged “COVID Parties” in T-Town were featured far and wide. Recently stories about people unsafely gathering near the University of Alabama outside of bars on a weekend were published on ESPN and other sports related sites. Even the the New York Times got in on the act.

A photograph of a large crowd outside of a popular waterhole near the campus was posted on the Twitter account of an University of Alabama football player. Senior offensive lineman Chris Owens asked, “How about we social distance and have more than a literal handful of people wear a mask? Is that too much to ask Tuscaloosa?”

Other images of crowds that were not observing COVID safety orders were posted on Twitter by the photo editor of the University of Alabama‘s newspaper The Crimson White. Hannah Saad also posted images of students on campus who were properly masked.

The large crowds that packed the sidewalks on The Strip, as the part of University Boulevard where many student bars are located has been traditionally called, were due to a confluence of events. Classes were scheduled to begin the next week at the University of Alabama. Sororities had their annual Bid Day event and a naked black man died ninety minutes after being tased by Tuscaloosa Police Department officers.

Bid Day, the Panhellenic sorority recruitment event, had been going just as planned. Bid Day was the culmination of a process that had to a great extent been done online. Co-eds who received bids were photographed in groups while wearing masks. One person who was part of the process bragged on how the University’s police officers helped orchestrate the event. He said that many parents of the co-eds, who were not supposed to be there in the first place, were not wearing masks. UAPD officers politely asked that parents of the co-eds leave the area. Many ignored the request however other parents complied.

Tuscaloosa’s Mayor Walt Maddox, at some point during the day, posed for an image with his daughter who had received a bid from Kappa Delta. He had been in the area for less than an hour and posed while not wearing a mask for thirty seconds with his daughter. Little did he know that the image which was posted on social media would receive a great deal of vitriol from people who resented the local and state mask orders.

In a press conference that took place after the weekend, as reported by WVUA/23, Maddox said:

I think we need to be a little bit disheartened by what we saw on the Strip. There are a large number of people who believe this is a hoax or not really a threat. I’m not asking you not to believe that. I’m asking that you put that aside right now because the standard that we’re dealing with is that people are still looking at the number of cases and the hospitalizations.

Some of the parents who were in town for Bid Day had decided to do what they normally did on football game days–hang out on The Strip. WVUA/23 in its report described the situation. “Bars on the Strip and in downtown Tuscaloosa such as Gallettes Tuscaloosa, Rounders and Innisfree featured long, tightly packed lines outside their doors and few masks in sight.” There was a mix of different ages represented. However many of the people who weren’t observing social distancing and wearing masks appeared to be students.

In his press conference, Mayor Maddox said, “The Tuscaloosa Police Department doesn’t have enough manpower to properly do their jobs” and insure mask enforcement.

This was certainly the case on the Saturday that Bid Day occurred. Some of the TPD‘s officers had been diverted to the West Precinct after a man died. A thirty-one year-old man Kendrell Antron Watkins, who was under the influence of Spice, as synthetic marijuana is called, had shed his clothes in a parking lot.

An account was given by Jason Morton in The Tuscaloosa News of the man’s arrest, where he was tased by police officers. Tuscaloosa Police Department spokeswoman Stephanie Taylor was interviewed by Morton.

The man’s family had earlier called called 911 and reported that Watkins was “losing it.” He was later reported by a woman who said that he was “half-dressed in the empty parking lot of a shopping center off Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. An officer responded and spoke with Watkins, asking if he needed assistance.” Watkins told him that he didn’t and continued walking. Morton further reported:

As Watkins was departing, the officer who responded to the 911 call in Cherrystone arrived and realized Watkins was the suspect from the earlier complaint.

The two officers called out and asked Watkins to stop, but he ran away, Taylor said.

“The officers then requested medical personnel as Watkins continued to run while removing his clothing and acting erratically,” she said.

Watkins continued to run along 15th Street, refusing to comply with the officers’ verbal commands to stop, Taylor said.

After deploying the Taser, the officers engaged in a struggle on the ground for around 45 seconds.

Watkins was conscious when he arrived at the hospital but died about 90 minutes later.

Although there had been no conclusion made that Watkin’s death was due to the tasing by police officers, there was a concern about how the community in Tuscaloosa’s West Side might react to the news of a black man who had died after having been arrested. As it turned out there had been no need for the diversion of police to the West Side.

But that diversion had created a shortage in manpower that was needed to deal with the crowds of unmasked people near the University of Alabama.

Articles about the crowds ranged from stories about the impact on college football to how Greek life was responsible for Coronavirus infections.

ESPN‘s Sam Khan Jr. and David M. Hale welcomed readers to “college football’s next big challenge: the return of the student body to campuses nationwide.”

For avid college football fans, the images and testimonials hitting the social media circles were nearly impossible to miss.

Dozens of mostly maskless fans lined up in close proximity Sunday on “The Strip” in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

The New York Times article “‘Frats Are Being Frats’: Greek Life Is Stoking the Virus on Some Campuses” by Amy Harmon, Frances Robles, Alan Blinder, and Thomas Fuller took on fraternity life:

The big bouquets of roses. The towering signs spelling out the letters of each house in Greek. And the hundreds of rushees clutching their acceptance envelopes as they run through campus together.

Bid day at the University of Alabama, when sororities decide which pledges will join their sisterhoods, is cause for celebration.

But this past weekend, women at the school, which has one of the biggest Greek systems in the country with 11,000 members, were warned not to party following their invitations to join any of two dozen sororities because of the potential spread of the coronavirus.

That did not stop all of them.

The bars and sidewalks along the Strip were crowded on Sunday as sorority members and other students reveled in their return-to-school rituals, sparking criticism from public officials, the fury of university officials and worries from other Tuscaloosans.

To most observers of the crowds the fact that many standing on the sidewalks weren’t students was clear. But the crowds doubtlessly were present because of campus activities associated with Greek life.

The article said that “fraternities and sororities have been especially challenging for universities to regulate. Though they dominate social life on many campuses, their houses are often not owned or governed by the universities, and have frequently been the site of excessive drinking, sexual assault and hazing. That same lack of oversight, some experts say, extends to controlling the virus. Even on campuses that are offering online instruction only, people are still living in some sorority and fraternity houses.”

Many people in Tuscaloosa remember how in 2013, Greeks staged a successful campaign to unseat a popular member of a local school board. Limo rides to the polls and free booze were promised for votes. Al.com‘s Melissa Brown‘s article “Sorority offered free drinks to members to vote in Tuscaloosa City Board of Education race” gave an account of the campaign.

Tuscaloosa residents remember how The Machine once ran a popular pizza joint out of business because the owner’s son ran for President of the Student Government Association (SGA) as an independent as well as other stories about the secretive Greek run society.

For people who already had an antipathy towards the Greeks on campus, fairly or not, the New York Times article may well have resonated. And guilt by association may cause some people to think that all students are as bad as the worst Greeks on campus. That’s simply not true. The current SGA President Demarcus Joiner who ran as an independent seems well qualified to offer leadership during the pandemic.

Safe Retun UA is a campus organization of faculty and staff members that has been very concerned about reopening the University. During a recent Zoom conference, concern about the accuracy of COVID testing at the university was expressed. The Faculty Senate at the University of Alabama recently voted in favor of a resolution calling for administrative transparency on data and closure plans.

Just as Notre Dame did, the University of Alabama released information about the low positivity of student COVID testing. Of course in the case of Notre Dame, because of a spike in COVID cases, nine days later the university shifted to remote learning. Notre Dame is not alone among schools that are shutting down because of the Coronavirus.

Two of the major college football conferences The Big Ten and PAC 12 have cancelled their seasons. The Southeastern Conference did not join them. The University of Alabama‘s football plans include no tailgating and a 20% stadium capacity, according to NBC/15.

Even under those conditions, where most of the usually over 100,000 football fans will have no reason to come to T-Town, the ability of the TPD and UAPD to enforce state COVID orders is questionable.

As AL.com‘s Carol Robinson has reported, Tuscaloosa’s Mayor Walt Maddox said, “We are desperately trying to protect (the city of Tuscaloosa) – We are trying to have a college football season. We have been running details for 3 straight nights. (Tuscaloosa PD) is stretched thin between COVID-19 and these details. We will be requesting daytime help from UAPD.”

With the TPD “depleted and exhausted,” as Maddox has described it, will the residents of T-Town have any reason to expect a safe Fall?

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How much does T-Town’s economy depend on alcohol sales to students?

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Tuscaloosa’s Mayor Walt Maddox has repeatedly emphasized the importance of University students to T-Town’s economy. He was quoted by WVUA/23‘s Chelsea Barton as having said, “Student spending itself in Tuscaloosa is a $366 million investment. August is gonna be maybe one of the most important months in recent history of Tuscaloosa.”

Students spend money on many things in T-Town, alcohol not being the least of them. According to Jason Morton in the Tuscaloosa News “community feedback from bar and restaurant owners” convinced the mayor to pull back on his decision to shut down bar service at 9 pm. He had previously set 11 pm as the hour to end bar only service.

It’s difficult to access the importance that liquor sales have to Tuscaloosa’s economy. And it’s even more difficult to determine how much liquor is consumed by under-aged drinkers. Minors can legally enter premises where alcohol is sold. Alcohol sales to football fans on game day weekends has also doubtlessly generated much tax revenue.

The Alabama Beverage Control Board regulates alcohol sales. Any establishment that serves alcohol is required to be licensed by the board.

There are three types of licenses: (1) 010 Lounge Retail, (2) 020 Restaurant Retail and (3) 031 Private Club.

The 2019 Code of Alabama Title 28 – Intoxicating Liquor, Malt Beverages and Wine establishes age requirements.

Many of the minors who are admitted into licensed establishments are University of Alabama students. The University, according to College Factual‘s The University of Alabama Student Age Diversity Breakdown, has 34.5% of its nearly forty thousand students in the 18-19 age group and 30.9% in the 20-21 age group.

Throughout the nation fake IDs have been used to skirt laws on under-aged sales. In Oxford, Mississippi, where the University of Mississippi is located, Mark Hicks, Director of Enforcement for the Mississippi ABC said in 2006, “We have a big problem in Oxford with students purchasing alcohol with fraudulent identification. This presents a challenge for law enforcement and retailers.”

Oxford’s Mayor Richard Howorth once asked, “Do we really want to be known as a drinking town with a football problem?” He also said, as reported by Chris Elkins in the Daily Journal, “Our No. 1 community problem is the culture of alcohol.”

In 2018, under Howorth’s successor Mayor Robyn Tannehill an ordinance establishing a mandatory program requiring the use of an Electronic Age Verification Device where alcohol was sold was enacted.

During the discussion of the ordinance the testimony of Oxford’s Police of Chief was provided by Chaning Green in the Daily Journal:

Oxford Police Chief Joey East stood before the board to answer questions and provide additional insight to the process. He talked about how there have been over 100 charges, not arrested but charges, that have happened since the students returned. The majority of which happened on the Square, in this Downtown District.

There is a 19-year-old college student currently in the ICU being treated for severe alcohol poisoning, after spending an evening binge drinking and being served in bars on the Square.

Two young women were recently sexually assaulted in two businesses on the Square. One of the businesses didn’t have security cameras and the other one’s cameras were broken.

East said he and the rest of his department are tired of running into these issues over and over again and that it’s past time something was done about it.

As soon as the ordinance was even being considered, many Ole Miss students were thinking about ways to defeat its purpose.

In 2018, Mary Liz King in The Daily Mississippian reported:

Sophomore business major Mason Ross said the ordinance will be a minor setback, but underage students will still find ways to engage in the bar scene in Oxford.

“Students will eventually start getting around the scanners, it will just take time,” Ross said. “I know some people are still getting in. Bouncers are looking the other way as long as people pay the cover charges.”

Establishments that sell alcohol in Alabama are obligated to verify the age of anyone purchasing alcohol. ABC provides training on how to visually detect fake IDs. Bar owners who are periodically given instructions must convey this information to their staff.

Tuscaloosa’s City Council, before the Coronavirus epidemic, had considered the issue of “bar security.” Glenda Webb of the city’s legal staff said that one problem that Tuscaloosa, as well as in other cities, had was the rapid turnaround of staff at bars. There would be a problem at many bars in maintaining a staff that was adequately trained. After a shooting had occurred at a local bar that was related to the behavior of security personnel, “bar security” became a hot topic. Of course due to the turnover having staff members who had expertise in identifying fake IDs was less likely as well.

Any reduction of alcohol sales in Tuscaloosa that has resulted from restrictions due to Coronavirus orders may be reflected in lower city revenues. Just how significant such sales really are may be impossible to determine, much less the significance of sales to minors.

T-Town may not be “a drinking town with a football problem” as Oxford’s mayor described his city. But it can’t be denied that Tuscaloosa has a problem, like any other college town, with under-aged drinking. The impact on its economy that will result from decreased alcohol sales will be hard to ignore.

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Meaningless occupancy restrictions in T-Town

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Much has been said lately about limiting occupancy in bars and restaurants in T-Town. But occupancy, if based on standard fire safety codes, is virtually meaningless in limiting exposure to the coronavirus.

The purpose of an August 6th executive order by Tuscaloosa’s Mayor Walt Maddox on time and occupancy restrictions was to “promote the health safety and welfare of the citizens of Tuscaloosa” and to mitigate “the spread of infectious diseases by reducing the threat of exposure.” In the order, businesses that have alcohol licenses were limited to 50 percent of their normal occupancy as determined by the Fire Marshal.

The many fire code violations that have occurred at businesses serving alcohol in Tuscaloosa usually involve patrons who are packed in like sardines. Fire safety regulations are based on the NFPA 101: Life Safety Code. The National Fire Protection Association‘s code stipulates how many people can be in establishment based on how many square feet are available for each person:

From the 2015 edition of NFPA 101

12.1.7.1.1 In areas not in excess of 10,000 sq.ft., the occupant load shall not exceed one person in 5 sq. ft.

12.1.7.1.2 In areas in excess of 10,000 sq.ft., the occupant load shall not exceed one person in 7 sq.ft.

However, if occupancy were to be based on recommendations by the the United States Fire Administration (USFA), the Life Safety Code standard would be insignificant. Instead as much as 113 square feet per person would be required. The USFA standard is based on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention standard that requires a distance of at least 6 feet between people outside your home. Alabama’s current Safer At Home order is likewise based on the CDC standard.

Mayor Walt Maddox announced how he would deal with controlling the spread of the coronavirus by using his new executive authority. As reported by Jason Morton in the Tuscaloosa News, Maddox said, “To take no action is to resign Tuscaloosa to a healthcare and economic fate that we would regret. The stakes have never been higher on this issue.”

During the press conference Maddox said that the behavior he witnessed on University Boulevard indicated that the coronavirus was the last thing on the minds of the young people he observed. He said that because enforcement of social distancing and mask wearing orders had proven to be difficult to enforce, occupancy at bars and restaurants would be targeted.

He said that bar-only service at restaurants would stop and bar occupancy would be reduced to 50 percent after 9 p.m. The occupancy of “experience/entertainment venues” would be limited to 25 percent at all times.

But that soon changed. Instead of ending bar service at 9 p.m. — 11 p.m. would be the cutoff hour. Jason Morton reported in the Tuscaloosa News: “After a meeting with owners of local bars and restaurants, Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox has altered his initial plans to curb late night activity in an effort to slow the coronavirus spread.” Morton wrote that the Mayor had “intended to implement a 9 p.m. halt to bar-only service at restaurants. Though drinks would still be allowed at tables, this move was intended to prevent restaurants from converting into bars after a certain hour.”

Indeed a hybrid bar/restaurant such as Innisfree Irish Pub, which has been a popular place for students to hang out, had stopped food service at an early hour and had served alcohol until the early morning hours. Innisfree’s co-owner Tripp Rogers had been one of the most vocal opponents of the new restrictions.

Rogers was quoted in the Tuscaloosa News as saying that crowds were found at churches, home improvement stores and fitness centers. “I just don’t want to be the only industry that gets singled out,” Rogers said. “But it’s hard. There’s no winning for anybody in this. The city has to make tough decisions and we’re going to have to live with it, no matter what.”

Throughout the nation bars and restaurants have been completely shut down. As reported in USA Today, “Now, as COVID-19 cases spike nationwide — including some states seeing record highs in new daily cases — several states and some cities are backtracking by closing dining rooms once again, in hopes of controlling the spread of the virus. Others have announced they’re stalling plans to re-open dining rooms.”

In T-Town, the bars that cater to students often have had long lines of unmasked people, who are standing shoulder to shoulder waiting to get in. The idea that the social distancing required by the state of Alabama would exist inside the bars is absolutely absurd. Most just don’t have adequate space for maintaining the distancing recommended by the CDC. The city’s 50% occupancy standard is meaningless.

Could it be that the city is aware of how preposterous its occupancy requirement really is? The city seems to be concerned about the impact of reopening the University of Alabama. As was reported in the Tuscaloosa News, “Based on current coronavirus trends and positive test rates of almost 12 percent, the arrival of University of Alabama students – a total that City Hall is now estimating at about 20,000 – could lead to more than 2,300 new cases in Tuscaloosa County.”

Perhaps the relaxation of the city’s requirements that must be met by bars and restaurants is on a trial-run basis? But occupancy requirements that don’t maintain social distancing are meaningless. Hopefully before the presence of students at bars and restaurants results in thousands of new coronavirus infections any such trial run will be over.

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Moving the goal line?

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For months Alabama football fans have been expecting an announcement about whether the Crimson Tide football team would be storming out on the gridiron in 2020. Because of the logistics of running a football program it was thought that a decision would be made by mid-July. It was estimated that it would take at least six weeks of preparation before the first game was played.

As the toll from the Coronavirus epidemic increased, many people were hoping that the season would be postponed for a year. Fans had mixed emotions according to Al.com‘s Michael Casagrande. He wrote about John Wills who was not planning on going to games after his wife had been hospitalized for two weeks after coaching Million Dollar Band Crimsonettes at a twirling competition in Ohio.

It was not until the end of July that there was a hint about any plans for the University of Alabama‘s football team. On July 29th an article by Cecil Hurt in the Tuscaloosa News reported on an email that had been sent by the University’s Director of Athletics Greg Byrne. Although the actual schedule had not been finalized, he informed season ticket holders and members of Tide Pride about the possibility of a “modified seating model.” He said that “those affected will have the option to elect a complete or partial refund of Tide Pride contributions and ticket purchases.”

The University of Texas Athletic Director Chris Del Conte recently told Longhorn fans that its stadium capacity would be at 50%. Similar plans were being made at the University of Houston. The University of Michigan anticipates having reduced crowds in the stadium. Ohio State‘s Athletic Director Gene Smith, as far back as in May, said that the Buckeyes might be playing before a stadium that was only about 30% full. At one time schools on the West Coast were actually contemplating canceling their seasons.

According to NCCA-FB‘s Dennis Dodd, the NCAA 2020 college football season was hanging in the balance due to uncertainties about the NCAA’s minimum testing requirements. Dodd wrote:

“Where is the panic button?” asked Dr. Michael Saag, an infectious disease expert at the UAB School of Medicine. “Where is the number of positive tests that makes the administration say, ‘OK we’ve got to cancel this week’s game?'”

There was an article in the Washington Post “On a call with SEC leaders, worried players pushed back: ‘It’s not good enough.'” by Robert Klemko and Emily Giambalvo. They reported on the concerns of players about reopening “a multibillion dollar industry afloat amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.” They quoted an unidentified SEC spokesman who said, “We’re going to have cases on every single team in the SEC. That’s a given. And we can’t prevent it.”

Al.com‘s Joseph Goodman addressed the complexities of playing football in the Southeastern Conference during a pandemic:

SEC presidents voted to scrap non-conference games on Thursday, but add two to everyone’s league slates. It feels a lot like a Hail Mary amid a hail storm. Pushing the season back three weeks to buy time is a great plan, and I’m hopeful that the number of coronavirus cases in the South will drop to acceptable levels by then. It’s not time to relax, though.

We know what happens when people let their guards down too early with the coronavirus.

You want preseason stats? Alabama reported 1,923 new coronavirus cases on Thursday morning, and there were 1,598 hospitalized people in the state due to COVID-19-related health problems. We’re under a state-wide mask order until Aug.31. Football can wait.

These altered league schedules we’re seeing around the country are nothing to celebrate. They’re necessary cash bailouts because college football pays the bills and keeps the lights on for non-revenue sports. If universities weren’t desperate for television money from ESPN and CBS, then league presidents would not be voting to play games.

They’re going to try and have college football, but the stadiums will be mostly empty. We’re hoping for football, but it’s still going to require a commitment from the public to follow rules. Tailgating? Nah. Not this year.

Grim statistics were recently reported in Al.com‘s Ramsey Archibald‘s article “Coronavirus deaths already well past average annual flu deaths in Alabama.” He said that it “has now been clear for some time – COVID-19 is not ‘just a bad flu.’ Alabama hasn’t suffered more than 1,268 flu deaths in any of the last 20 years – a number the coronavirus has already topped.” Archibald said that epidemiologists were concerned, that when the flu season begins, the two viruses could “potentially overlap in busy hospitals.”

In addition to the over thirty thousand University of Alabama students that are expected to return to the Capstone, having upwards of fifty thousand football fans enter the mix in T-Town is entering uncharted territory. There is already a great amount of uncertainty involved in reopening the campus.

Will Tuscaloosa become a giant petri dish for the Coronavirus in the Fall or will everything go as planned? Will students and fans act responsibly by social distancing and wearing masks, before and after the games? Will football players remain healthy? It can fairly be said that there has seldom been a football season in T-Town that is as much on the minds of its residents as this one has been.

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To Mask Or Not To Mask?

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There hasn’t been much mention of COVID parties lately on Facebook group pages. Before the Fourth of July there had been a spate of articles about alleged parties that had taken place in T-Town, the purpose of which had been said was for party goers to compete in becoming infected by the Coronavirus. None of the culprits, who were said to have been involved in them by a local doctor, have ever been found.

A statewide mask order that was issued by Governor Ivy went into effect on July 16th. It will be in effect at least until July 31st. The order was issued after a significant statewide uptick in COVID related hospitalizations. A city mask ordinance in Tuscaloosa had already been in effect since July 6th which would have applied until August 5th. The state order superseded any local regulations. There has been a mixed response to the mask order.

There had been the ongoing debate between mask skeptics and those who believe in masks, Caitlan McCabe’s article in the Wall Street Journal “Face Masks Really Do Matter. The Scientific Evidence Is Growing” supported the use of masks. She discussed among other things that “research suggests that face coverings help reduce the transmission of droplets.”

One major concern that has increasingly been discussed on Facebook has been the return of nearly 30,000 university students to T-Town. Many permanent residents looked at the inevitable reopening of the University of Alabama with trepidation. There was also concern expressed by Safe Return UA, a staff, faculty and student-led campaign. Safe Return UA called for “universal COVID-19 testing, adequate family and medical leave, employment protections and public accountability for the upcoming academic year at the University of Alabama.”

Al.com‘s Dennis Pillion reported on the plans to test every college student in the state. He quoted the University of Alabama Birmingham‘s Dr. Michael Saag as having said that “every student is going to be asked to wear a mask, as well as all the staff and the faculty on the campus to try to mitigate the spread while they’re there. My hope is that if everyone’s wearing a mask when they’re out and about, when they’re inside enclosed spaces.”

According to Pillion, Sang explained that the testing will involve samples from multiple students — five to 10 at a time, depending on the circumstances — which will be combined. If the pooled sample tests negative, all the students in the pool are negative. If the pooled sample tests positive, the lab can then test the individual samples to find which students in the pool are positive.

“‘The thing that will throw us off is if the prevalence in the community of students is over 4%,” Sang said. “We don’t anticipate that based on preliminary data that we have so far, but it’s very fluid, and we’ll have to see what we get.”

The University of Alabama‘s Return Plan leaves many questions to be answered.

In terms of the plan’s safety practices there seems to be a good deal of reliance on voluntary cooperation. “Individuals who fail to complete these measures will be asked to repeat the training. Continued non-compliance will result in further review through the Office of Student Conduct or Human Resources and could result in dismissal. We will continue with messaging on the importance of and requirement to wear face coverings and other PPE. In keeping with Crimson Tide tradition, we are confident the University community will join together to help each other.”

Should the state or city mask orders expire there would be no obligation for students to wear masks in public in off-campus areas.

“Face coverings are required in all UA facilities, with limited exceptions. A face covering is not required in your own room or suite in University housing. However, it will be required in common areas, like residence hall lobbies. We also strongly encourage you to use a face covering in all public settings.

“Face coverings are required inside all University-owned buildings, and outside during on-campus gatherings and in other on-campus settings where social distancing is difficult to maintain.”

“Along with your personal room and suite in University housing, you do not have to wear a face covering in enclosed offices, enclosed study spaces, your vehicles, outdoors where distancing is met and when doing certain physical activities such as working out at specified University Recreation facilities. Although not required in these instances, use of a face covering in all settings is strongly encouraged.”

In order to keep the “campus community as safe as possible during the school year,” some students are being moved from residence halls to the off-campus Loft apartments.

“We apologize for any inconvenience, but we expect the new facilities to be comparable or an enhanced option to students’ previous assignment, including a private bathroom for each resident, and a washer/dryer in each apartment. Every effort was made to assign students with roommates in their roommate group, possibly along with one additional student. Students still live under the HRC housing contract, which will last only for the academic year, although students will have the option to remain through July 2021, at no additional cost. Students will pay a reduced rate, and utilities will be included.

“Crimson Ride will also provide transportation between campus and the Lofts. We understand this is unexpected news, and we regret that it may add to what has without doubt been an uncertain few months. The University does not make the change lightly, but only because of its obligation to be proactive in planning for capacity issues while following the guidelines outlined in the University’s Plan for a Return to Full Operations and keeping the campus community as safe as possible during the school year. Students who instead prefer to make their own off-campus arrangements may cancel their housing contract if they prefer.”

The usually crowded and hectic Sorority Rush will initially conducted online. “Most sorority recruitment rounds, which begin Saturday, Aug. 8, will be held virtually, with potential new members interacting with current sorority members via Zoom.”

In terms of campus gatherings and Greek activities “personal responsibility” for safe behavior is called for.

“Social events and group experiences will be planned to preserve the experience, consistent with health and safety requirements. Details will be released for each event. Students should take personal responsibility to protect themselves and others from infection.

“Student groups, including Greek organizations, are strongly encouraged to move events outside and use online meeting platforms when possible. Student groups must abide by all stated occupancy limitations when hosting events or gatherings indoors.”

How off-campus activity will be regulated, if at all, is uncertain although on-campus activities have restrictions.

“UA, in compliance with the UA System Health and Safety Plan, has implemented additional restrictions on certain events in an effort to further mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Event attendees should enter a facility or event only after having completed the Healthcheck assessment tool.”

Recently, even after the statewide mask order, young people who were not wearing masks and were standing shoulder to shoulder have been observed outside of bars that traditionally serve students. The order stipulates that masks should be worn by people who are within 6 feet of a person from another household. In order to eat or drink masks would need to be removed of course.

The Tuscaloosa Rotary Club had a “socially distanced” meeting with University of Alabama President Andrew Bell as its guest speaker. Apparently pictures on Instagram showed that a distance of six feet between Rotarians was maintained. It took a fairly large ballroom to maintain such distancing for fewer than forty people. There are few comparable spaces available in campus bars.

There have been problems with fire code violations at venues that University students have frequented. No details were provided by Tuscaloosa’s Fire Chief Randy Smith about the 22 businesses in May that were in violation of the Alabama Department of Public Health’s reopening guidelines according to an ABC 33/40 story.

Alison Snyder in Axios reported, “More young people are being infected with the coronavirus, and even though they’re less likely to die from it, experts warn the virus’ spread among young adults may further fuel outbreaks across the United States.”

A fear of having student “super spreaders” of Coronavirus in the community exists for many permanent residents. They are not reassured by the University of Alabama‘s plans for reopening. Many of them have had previous experiences with students that caused them concern. A survey in 2012 by Tuscaloosa Neighbors Together reflected a general antipathy towards student housing.

The pandemic will perhaps provide an opportunity for the University of Alabama and its students to regain the trust of the permanent residents of T-Town.

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