Covid Parties in T-Town?

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T-Town has been in the national news lately because of stories about COVID-19 parties. Bruce Y Lee wrote an article “Are Covid-19 Coronavirus Parties Really A Thing In Alabama?” in Forbes magazine that said:

A recent example is from Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Allegedly, college students there have been holding such Covid-19 parties in which attendees pay an entry fee, someone brings the SARS-CoV2 with him or her to the party, and the first person who ends up gets infected at the party then wins the collective pot of entry fees.

Lee posted the University of Alabama‘s disclaimer. You shouldn’t expect a mea culpa from the school unless iron-clad evidence is available of course.

One thing that is certain. Any nationwide publicity about COVID-19 parties in Tuscaloosa was the last thing that the University of Alabama wanted just before re-enrollment began. 

The difficulty in identifying any student who may have been involved shouldn’t be too surprising. In the case of a Rockland County suburb nine guests at a posh party tested positive. Subpoenas were necessary for the local authorities to get the names of any of the infected guests.

Stories had been circulating in T-Town about the COVID parties for weeks. A Tuscaloosa Council woman Cynthia McKinstry had even mentioned them in a committee meeting.

Then Tuscaloosa Fire Chief Randy Smith, at a Pre-Council meeting on June 30th, stated that “The one thing that we have seen over the past few weeks were parties going on in the city, county and several locations where students or kids would come in with known positives. We thought that was a rumor at first. We did some additional research, not only at the doctor’s office but at the state and they had the same information.”

He also said that some of the people who were tested used out-of-state IDs. That would indicate that some of the people involved were students whose permanent residence was not in Tuscaloosa.

Mark Hughes Cobb reported in the Tuscaloosa News what a local doctor had said:

Dr. Ramesh Peramsetty, a local physician who has been actively posting on West Alabama social media groups regarding pandemic testing and screening, from the perspective of his First Care and Crimson Care clinics, said COVID party stories have been going around for weeks. He posted what he’d heard about them as far back as June 8.

“While my nursing staff was triaging patients for COVID-19 swabbing, they were told about the COVID-19 house parties and were even shown videos of the parties by college students,” Peramsetty said.

“When students are called for results, we noticed that some were very excited and happy that they were positive, while others were very upset that they were negative.”

Although Dr. Peramsetty may not have viewed the videos, he felt confident enough in what his staff had told him to mention them.

However, if any of the videos had ever been posted on social media sites they seem to have been scrubbed. Conceivably the subjects in the alleged COVID party videos may have decided that perhaps they shouldn’t be feeling all that proud about them. If University of Alabama students had been in the videos, then the University’s “thorough investigation” was certainly impeded.

In the University of Alabama‘s student newspaper The Crimson White featured Grace Schepis’s article “Local doctor: University left key clinic out of ‘corona parties’ investigation”

Schepis wrote, “While these rumors may have raised eyebrows, they’ve also raised concerns about the University’s preparedness for the fall.”

She quoted the University’s President Stuart Bell as having said, “I think everyone needs to take this virus seriously. And I think [people] are making rumors of almost anything you could imagine someone would say. We look, certainly within our leadership, among our SGA, among our Greeks, and are communicating to them the importance of making sure that you make good decisions and smart decisions, and we will continue to do that as a University.”

Schepis continued, “The University did not provide a specific description of its investigation, but The Crimson White is actively seeking that information. Despite Crimson Care’s close proximity to campus, Peramsetty said he was never contacted by the University throughout its investigation about possible instances of these parties or any related cases. Peramsetty said his staff have informed the City of Tuscaloosa, but not the University directly.”

She further reported:

Garrett Bridger Gilmore, an English instructor and organizer for Safe Return UA, thinks that there is a bigger lesson to learn from this incident. 

“Whether COVID parties really happened or not, this is an important lesson that we cannot only rely on individual choices to keep us safe when students return to campus,” Gilmore said. “Many of UA’s proposed policies rely on students who test positive to quarantine themselves, but they haven’t released details on who will be responsible for enforcing quarantining or how they will do it.”

On June 15, the University released a rudimentary plan for students to return to campus in the fall. The plan included quarantine measures for those who test positive while on campus and an optional contact tracking system for students, but even new additions to the plan have yet to provide details on enforcement.

“Without a public plan that accounts for how UA will implement universal testing and for what measures will be taken to ensure that students who are infected don’t carry on their lives like everything is normal, it’s hard for many university employees to believe that UA is taking COVID-19 as seriously as they say they are,” Gilmore said.

One thing is clear. In T-Town many people who were apprehensive about the reopening of the University of Alabama were hardly reassured about the COVID party stories.

Although younger people are certainly contracting the Coronavirus, older people are more likely to be at higher risk of serious illness.

Many residents were already aware of the non-stop partying that had been going on by University students who’d never left town after the school ended its face to face instruction in March. They also knew that some students had returned to the neighborhoods that are adjacent to the university. There had been newspaper accounts of campus bars where social distancing regulations had been violated. Some of these bars had been forced to close because their staff had been infected with the Coronavirus. In effect what had been going on in certain bars had been a form of COVID-19 parties–without the actual intention of the participants being infected.

Should any of the COVID-19 party goers have been University of Alabama students, for the University to announce that the students who were involved would not be allowed to re-enroll would greatly reassure T-Town residents. Contact tracing of all potentially infected persons is also needed. As it stands now, without any determination of who the people were who participated in the parties, there is no reason to think that they are not remaining in town and still not engaging in reckless behavior.

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Pride & Prejudice at Bama

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Old timers may recall when the “national anthem” of the Confederacy “Dixie” was played. Many football fans sang along as the University of Alabama‘s Million Dollar Band played the iconic song. “I wish I was in the land of cotton, old times there are not forgotten.”

The song “Dixie” was written in the 1850s for blackface minstrel shows. According to the History Collection:

With its beginnings in theater, the story of “Dixie” starts with a song. By the mid-nineteenth century, minstrel shows – a variety show that included singing and dancing – were popular entertainments that ridiculed African slaves. Using skits that depicted Africans as lazy and good-natured, minstrel shows introduced “blackface” characters played by white actors in black makeup. They perpetuated the “dumb Negro” stereotype, beginning with the “Jim Crow” character in the 1830s. Initially appearing once or twice within a given performance, “blackface” caricatures soon became the center of the minstrelsy.

Lewis Bolling wrote an account of the celebration that took place after the University of Alabama football team’s 1926 victory at the Rose Bowl. He described how the Million Dollar Band marched down Greensboro Avenue. A speaker at the event bragged that the team was unbeatable when the band played “Dixie.”

A Georgia newspaper proclaimed the victory the “greatest victory for the South since the Battle of Bull Run,” referring to the first major victory for the Confederacy in the American Civil War.

The lyrics of team’s fight song “Yea Alabama” refer to the 1926 Rose Bowl victory. “Remember the Rose Bowl/We’ll win then/So roll on to victory/Hit your stride/You’re Dixie’s football pride/Crimson Tide Roll Tide, Roll Tide.”

It’s been many years since the strains of “Dixie” have wafted over the bleachers in Bryant Denny Stadium. In recent years fans have sung along with the country song “Dixieland Delight.” Its lyrics include a reference to “A little turtle dovin’ on a Mason Dixon night.” Student fans, many of whom come from areas in the United States outside of Dixieland, are enamored of the song which somehow “fits” their lives.

But more than “Dixieland Delight” and perhaps even “Yea Alabama,” the song that now seems synonymous with Alabama Football was written in the middle of a Florida swamp in a shack by a group of stoned rockers named Lynyrd Skynyrd. One of the song’s composers Ronnie Van Zant once said, “Everybody thinks we’re a bunch of drunken rednecks … and that’s correct.”

“Sweet Home Alabama” is indelibly tied to Alabama football games where it is frequently played. Even in the pregame spots by television networks it is often featured. It has a catchy tune but in a way the song may have more racist overtones than even “Dixie.” To be fair the musicians may have been so out of it that the lyrics they cobbled together may have not have been intended as racist.

“Sweet Home Alabama” refers to the 1970 song “Southern Man” by Neil Young about the lynchings of blacks that took place in Alabama and other parts of the South. “Well I heard Mister Young sing about her/Well, I heard ol’ Neil put her down/Well, I hope Neil Young will remember/A Southern man don’t need him around, anyhow.”

The song also seems to side with Alabama’s former segregationist governor George Wallace. “In Birmingham, they love the governor (boo! boo! boo!)/ Now we all did what we could do.” The lyrics of “Home Sweet Alabama” say “the skies are so blue and the governor’s true.”

Young has recently said, “It’s not just ‘Southern Man’ now. It’s everywhere across the USA. It’s time for real change.”

For “Sweet Home Alabama” to remain as the song most readily associated with Alabama football after the national unrest sparked by the killing of George Floyd would seem to fly in the face of sentiments expressed by its football coach and players.

In Alabama the skies aren’t always blue and football fans aren’t all white. To ban “Sweet Home Alabama” from Bryant Denny Stadium might well be a good way to show that black lives matter.

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A Recipe for Disaster?

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The University of Alabama has released a guiding plan to return to full campus operations. University President Dr. Stuart R. Bell has said, “We will be nimble. We will adjust. We will learn. Ultimately, we will win and be Still Tide Together.”

A petition “Statement of Expectations for Worker Health and Safety for Academic Year 2020-2021” sponsored by the United Campus Workers of Alabama CWA Local 3965 expressed concerns over the University’s plan. It stated that many members of the University community were concerned about health and safety issues, saying that “older adults and people with underlying health conditions are at increased risk for severe infection and death.” It stated:

While recommendations for mandatory mask use, social distancing, flexibility with class format, and robust testing and tracing offer a solid foundation for the physical aspects of health on campus, many of the System’s recommendations include caveats like “when available” that leave the door open for under-preparedness, inaction and neglect. Additionally, the UA System Comprehensive Plan made no mention of employment policies, contingency plans for severe outbreaks on campus or in local communities, or structures of accountability for decision makers. It is the university’s moral responsibility to its workers, students and community to adapt its employment policies to ensure safety for workers and the broader University community.

A successful reopening of the University and the return of thousands of students will benefit Tuscaloosa’s economy as much as anything possibly could. The city lost an estimated $2.6 million in revenue per mouth after the University sent its students home in March.

Any success largely depends on the cooperation of the returning students. Temple University‘s Dr. Laurence Steinberg in a New York Times opinion column expressed a pessimistic view of how students will cope with returning to school. In his article “Expecting Students to Play It Safe if Colleges Reopen Is a Fantasy” he said that plans for returning students “border on delusional and could lead to outbreaks of Covid-19 among students, faculty and staff.”

Steinberg said that the risky behavior of many students, including “reckless driving, criminal activity, fighting, unsafe sex and binge drinking,” was typical of students in their late-adolescence. His team conducted epidemiological studies that have that reached the same conclusions of other such studies on adolescents. He concluded:

My pessimistic prediction is that the college and university reopening strategies under consideration will work for a few weeks before their effectiveness fizzles out. By then, many students will have become cavalier about wearing masks and sanitizing their hands. They will ignore social distancing guidelines when they want to hug old friends they run into on the way to class. They will venture out of their “families” and begin partying in their hallways with classmates from other clusters, and soon after, with those who live on other floors, in other dorms, or off campus. They will get drunk and hang out and hook up with people they don’t know well. And infections on campus — not only among students, but among the adults who come into contact with them — will begin to increase.

At that point, college administrators will find themselves in a very dicey situation, with few good options.

In Florida, which recently reopened its bars, a group of sixteen friends all tested positive for the Coronavirus. In CNNs Madeline Holcombe’s report “16 friends test positive for coronavirus after an outing at a Florida bar” they regretted that they did not wear masks in the crowded bar. Florida has had record setting rates of infection in June. Gino Spocchia reported in The Independent that some of Florida’s recently opened bars and restaurants were forced to close amid new Covid-19 cases.

When University of Alabama students return will they, as Temple’s professor Steinberg predicts of students in general, disregard safety measures both on and off campus? Tuscaloosa community residents have for months practiced safe behavior. The returning students who might become infected will in most cases suffer little. That may not be the case for older permanent residents. Many of the Druid City Health Care system’s ICU units are already full. An increase in infection in the community could overwhelm its healthcare system.

Whether the University of Alabama‘s plans to minimize the spread of the Coronavirus are effective may well depend on student leadership. If there is such leadership the history of Alabama’s flagship university will have a special chapter dedicated to the role that students played in its most important victory.

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Southern Change at Bama?

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When students or football fans return to the University of Alabama in the Fall, they will not see the Confederate monument that has long stood in front of the Amelia Gayle Gorgas Library. As Stephanie Taylor reported in The Tuscaloosa News the University of Alabama Board of Trustees had the monument removed and appointed a group “to study the names of campus buildings named after slave owners and proponents of white supremacy.”

The University’s student newspaper The Crimson White posted information on Twitter about four buildings that were named for individuals who had racist histories–Morgan Hall, Nott Hall, Manley Hall and Bibb Graves Hall.

Bibb Graves for example was a former governor of Alabama, who according to Wikipedia, had strong political ties to the Klux Klux Klan. He was also an advocate for eugenic sterilization. The Tweet by The Crimson White listed him as the “Grand Cyclops of the Montgomery Klavern.”

Research of Hilary Green, Assistant Professor at the University in the Department of Gender and Race Studies, culminated in the “The Hallowed Grounds Project: Race, Slavery and Memory at the University of Alabama.” She has for years conducted campus tours featuring buildings such as Bibb Graves Hall.

After the monuments on campus were removed, Green Tweeted “Since Jan 2015, I have researched campus history of slavery and its legacy. Conducted an in person tour for over 4,800 individuals. Taught classes, lectured, and written about the work. I will remember today. #slaveryua

Touchdown Alabama‘s Patrick Dowd wrote, “Change is on the horizon in America, and men and women all across the country are standing up to try and rid the nation of hateful and offensive properties.

“One of the many from the University of Alabama is former safety Rashad Johnson, who took to Twitter on Monday urging his alma mater to remove a number of Confederate monuments and to rename buildings across the campus.”

Dowd quoted Johnson’s Tweet: “The time is now @UofAlabama!!!. We can’t honor these people or anything that stood with this movement, it’s over y’all lost and we don’t need any reminders of the pain we have endured til this day! We are living in a new day!!! A change will and is coming!!”

In a Franklin Stove blog “Built by Bama?” that was posted in 2018, a quote from former Alabama football player Landon Collins about a incident of racism on campus was included. He said, “I believe I speak on behalf of my brothers and myself when I say the Bama football team does not need the support, cheers or high fives of anyone who condones this type of intolerant, hateful behavior. #BuiltByBama”

In 2014 a there was a Franklin Stove blog about discrimination by University of Alabama Greeks. The post “Bama Sorority Wants To Stay Lily-white?” featured the lyric’s of Neil Young’s song “Southern Man.” A verse of the song is: “Southern change gonna come at last /Now your crosses are burning fast.” Young has recently been quoted in Rolling Stone magazine about his classic song. “It’s not just ‘Southern Man’ now. It’s everywhere across the USA. It’s time for real change.”

Perhaps change is finally in the air at the University of Alabama. Its newly elected Student Government Association (SGA) President Demarcus Joiner, as Al.com‘s Ben Flanagan reported, “called for the school to rename buildings on campus with ‘racist namesakes.'”

Under Joiner the SGA released a statement:

The University of Alabama Student Government Association joins our fellow students in their call to rename these buildings and urge a review of the Alabama Memorial Preservation Act, a state law banning local governments from renaming historical buildings.

The University’s head football coach Nick Saban made a definitive statement on racial justice in a letter that was sent to the media:

Al.com‘s Michael Casagrande’s article “Alabama football players speak out against racial injustice” quoted the reaction of former and current Alabama players to the murder of George Floyd. Offensive Lineman Chris Owns said “Change is coming from this generation whether you like it or not. Enough is enough.”

The tragic murder of George Floyd by the police in Milwaukee has resulted in consequences throughout the nation. Will the buildings that bear the names of notorious racists at the University of Alabama be renamed? Will serious steps be taken towards ending racial discrimination in the University’s Greek system? Those questions remain to be answered.

Perhaps Southern change will come at last?

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RTR – in a COVID Season!

Although the University of Alabama will resume in-person learning for the fall semester, much speculation has gone on about how its 2020 football season will be conducted.

The university is still struggling to figure out how to have football games. An article “COVID-tracking app could be key to University of Alabama reopening, including college football” by Al.com‘s Dennis Pillion described a possible approach.

Sue Feldman, a UAB associate professor of health informatics who is overseeing the technology aspects of the re-entry plan, said in addition to working on the contact tracing app, her group is working on ways to use technology to reduce the risk of large gatherings of people.

Feldman said that while it’s early in the process, attending a college sporting event in the future might be more like an airline flight, where people are required to check-in ahead of time and report that they are not showing symptoms of COVID-19.

“We’ve become accustomed to getting our plane ticket 24 hours before takeoff,” Feldman said. “You might get your event ticket 48 hours before, or 72 hours before the event. And with [showing] no symptoms.”

If a person who is asymptomatic checks in in this manner it will simply mean that super-spreaders may still be in the football crowd. Across from Bryant Denny Stadium is a cemetery where many graves of deceased Bama fans are decorated for the football season with floral “A’s” and houndstooth ribbons. If the process backfires there may be many more Bama fans joining them six feet under.

There is a nationwide problem with student athletes who have become infected with the Coronavirus. Purportedly five football players at the University of Alabama have tested positive. The way in which the University of Mississippi responded to an athlete and staff member who were infected was covered in The Clarion Ledger by Nick Suss. Two people who tested positive lived on campus and were asymptomatic carriers. They are both self-isolating. (Another athlete not living on campus who tested positive in a pre-screening for the Coronavirus was not be allowed to return.)

If college football games begin again, both players and fans may be required to wear masks. In Japan people in amusement parks who are riding a roller coaster are forbidden to scream. It will be unlikely that Bama fans during a game will not be repeatedly yelling Roll Tide Roll at the top of their lungs even if their screams are muffled by masks. How the Million Dollar Band can perform is another question. Throughout the nation the activities of marching bands have been greatly curtailed due to the Coronavirus. The number of fans allowed into stadiums will likely be severely restricted.

The University of Alabama Football Program has already assigned seats for the members of its Tide Pride program. As yet there have been no plans made public about how the games will be played and how the fans will be accommodated.

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A Bama COVID Experience!

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How the University of Alabama will reopen for face to face learning in August is as yet uncertain. In April University of Alabama System Chancellor Finis St. John announced the formation of a task force led by UAB Health System experts to develop plans for the three University of Alabama System campuses.

The Yellowhammer News reported that St John “joined 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 website said:

Clay Ryan, vice chancellor for Governmental Affairs & Economic/Workforce Development, told Yellowhammer News in a statement, “Chancellor St. John presented on the four pillars of our plans for reopening our campuses: testing, tracking, tracing, and treatment.”

“Vice President Pence and Dr. Birx were impressed by the Help Beat Covid-19 symptom tracking tool, and we believe this group of higher education leaders will reconvene in the next few weeks at the White House to discuss fall plans with President Trump, Vice President Pence, and other members of the White House task force,” Ryan concluded.

Insight into how a university might reopen was provided in a DemocracyNow! interview with Dr. Ashish Jha, professor of global health and director of Harvard University’s Global Health Institute. Dr. Jha, in a response to a question about schools such as the University of Alabama which were reopening, said:

As you might imagine, this is not just a conversation I’m having with lots of public health people and education officials, but also at home with the kids about what’s going to happen in the fall.

The way I think about this is there’s going — what is likely to happen is a lot of variations. Some schools are going to open, some schools are going to stay online. What should drive the decision-making? Well, one is how much community transmission is happening in that place at that time. So, if we’re thinking about Harvard University, for instance, how much community transmission is happening in eastern Massachusetts? If a lot of people are getting infected and sick, it’s going to be very hard for Harvard or any university in eastern Massachusetts to open.

Second is around availability of testing. I think you have to have a strategy where you’re going to have to be able to test kids and staff and faculty on an ongoing basis.

Third is you’re going to have to do certain social distancing things. There are going to be no large classes. There should be no large classes. There should be — if you’re going to do sporting events, certainly not with any kind of spectators, and you have to really think about what sporting events can you justify and how do you do that.

So there’s a lot of changes that are going to need to happen. I like the idea of starting early and trying to end early. I think most of us believe there will be a surge of cases in the fall. All the principles I just laid out need to happen for primary and secondary schools, as well, really rethinking things like cafeteria, rethinking things like sports. And if we do all of that, I believe there’s a very, very good chance that we can open up schools, we can get kids back to school in the fall. It may not look like a normal fall, but if we can get through this fall and we have a vaccine early in 2021, we can get through this pandemic.

Perhaps the elephant in the room, or at least on campus, is how the University of Alabama’s sports program will be affected by the pandemic. Some insight as to what conditions the university’s championship football team might play under this year was given in AP reporter Steve Megargee’s article “NCAA to lift moratorium on football, basketball workouts.”

Margargee wrote:

Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said in conference call Wednesday that he believes the Buckeyes could safely play home games with 20,000 to 30,000 fans in its 105,000-seat stadium.

“I think we can get there,” Smith said.

Smith said he hadn’t figured out yet how those 20,000 to 30,000 spectators would be chosen. He said masks and other precautions would be required to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Smith added that Ohio State is ready to open the 15,000-square-foot Woody Hayes Athletic Center to athletes starting June 8 if the NCAA allows it. About 10 players at a time would be allowed to work out on staggered scheduled with social-distancing and other hygiene precautions in place. Some coaches returned to the complex on a limited basis this week.

Most athletic departments need the revenue generated from football to fund their other sports. Hundreds of schools are reeling financially from the effects of the pandemic. Athletic departments, particularly at smaller schools and in Division II, have already cut a number of sports.

The NCAA this week lowered the minimum and maximum number of games Division II schools are required to play in all sports next year. The move includes a 33% reduction in the minimum number of games needed for sponsorship and championship qualification in most sports.

The University of Alabama’s athletic director Greg Byrne has yet to reveal any details about the plans for the Crimson Tide. They may well differ from what Ohio State’s athletic director is contemplating. He did send a Bryne Notice email that said, “we recently added a pack of Alabama-themed face coverings to our online store.”

Crucial to the financial welfare of the City of Tuscaloosa is its “experience economy.” As reported by Jason Morton in The Tuscaloosa News the city’s Elevate/Tuscaloosa program includes $3 million that will be “targeted toward bolstering the city’s ‘experience economy’ by bringing in more concerts to the Tuscaloosa Amphitheater, more events to Live at the Plaza, and more music, food and art festivals, among other events.” Just when the requirements for “social distancing” and crowd sizes will allow the resumption of such activities is uncertain.

The University of Alabama’s sports program and other activities at the University are tangential yet at the same time significant components of Tuscaloosa’s “experience economy.” In the past many of Tuscaloosa’s “experience” events have coincided with the University’s sports and other activities. Of course students have been an important part of the audience for such events.

The city’s sales tax revenues have decreased since the onset of the pandemic. The sectors that have shown the most significant negative impacts can be associated with the absence of University students and events that were cancelled by the University.

A lot rests on what the University’s COVID experience will entail. Certainly the best and brightest minds at the University are at work in cobbling together the details on just how the Bama tradition will continue during the Coronavirus pandemic.

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Superspreaders in T-Town?

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Bars and other venues that serve alcohol in T-Town are potentially “superspreaders” of the Coronavirus.

Even talking in poorly ventilated, close quarters may be lethal. Al.com‘s John Sharp wrote:

The biggest concern with night clubs is the propensity for congregation, according to Dr. Ellen Eaton, assistant professor of medicine at the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Division of Infectious Diseases. Mix alcohol with music, and people become “less diligent” toward hand hygiene and maintaining social distancing, Eaton said.

“Anytime someone is around and dancing and singing and after a few hours and a few drinks, folks are not mindful of face coverings,” said Eaton. “And as the hours pass on, I imagine you see less diligence with hand hygiene and sharing spaces and all of those are high-risk behaviors we would not recommend at this time.”

Eaton compared the risks at a night club to that of a choir practice that generated attention from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this week. The CDC examined a deadly outbreak of a 2-1/2-hour choir practice that occurred in early March in Skagit County, Washington. Attended by 61 people, the March 10 practice infected 52 people (87%) with COVID-19 symptoms and has since been described as a “super spreader” event.

A new study, published Wednesday in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, showed that simply talking in a venue that is not well-ventilated, can transmit the virus from person to person through tiny droplets that are suspended in air for up to 14 minutes.

A CDC report on a superspreader event concluded:

The potential for superspreader events underscores the importance of physical distancing, including avoiding gathering in large groups, to control spread of COVID-19. Enhancing community awareness can encourage symptomatic persons and contacts of ill persons to isolate or self-quarantine to prevent ongoing transmission.

It’s no wonder that bars and restaurants are closing. An article by Restaurant and bar owners say social distancing could wipe out their industry.” Reporting that “bars are even worse off than restaurants,” they wrote:

Restaurant owners and managers are grappling with the brutal math that underpins their industry. Margins are razor thin, forcing eateries and bars to pack in customers every night, and especially on the weekends, in order to stay afloat. In the toughest markets, that means multiple waves of guests, and tables that are pushed together as closely as possible.

CNN‘s Shana Clarke described how restaurants might cope with the new strictures imposed by the pandemic. She wrote that restaurants might offer surgical gloves, hand sanitizer and masks to diners as they enter the premise.  Also restaurants might utilize disposable dishware and offer salt, pepper, ketchup and other condiments by request only.

After the University of Alabama ended its on-campus instruction in March, the cottage industry in the University’s vicinity that catered to students has been particularly hard hit. Traditional watering holes have closed for good, including Wilhagan’s Grille & Tap Room and The Downtown Pub. While neither of these establishments were primarily serving students, a hybrid bar/restaurant Innisfree known for its popularity with students has resorted to a form of social distancing.

Innisfree Pub is operating at fifty percent capacity according to a report by ABC 33/40:

Innisfree Pub reopened on Wednesday and told ABC 33/40 their increased safety plans.

“We’ve taken the precautions that we’re supposed to, but we’re just happy to be open and have people sitting down,” said Nick Snead, Innisfree Manager.

“You can’t cram three hundred people in here like we do on a game day, but we’ve moved the tables around and have around 160 people and if people are trying to group we’ll advise them [on] social distance,” Snead said.

ABC 33/40 reported that as of mid-May there had been twenty-two businesses in Tuscaloosa caught violating reopening rules. There were some incidents involving patrons who while waiting in line did not observe the required social distancing.

The University will reopen in August with some form of face to face learning. What methods of social distancing will be required by the school are as yet to be established.

Unless the Alabama Department of Public Heath‘s orders on operating bars and restaurants are considerably relaxed, many of the over twenty-five thousand returning University students will find it impossible to return to their routines that involved densely packed drinking environments.

It may well be that many of the venues that they were accustomed to patronizing may no longer be in business.

 

 

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“Safely” reopening T-Town

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It’s an entirely new ball game in T-Town now. Alabama’s Governor Ivy updated the Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH)’s “Safer at Home” order.

City of Tuscaloosa’s Mayor Walt Maddox repealed the April 28th Executive Order that adopted the Reopen Tuscaloosa plan, as reported by Jason Morton in the Tuscaloosa News.

Now restaurants, bars and other businesses can operate under restricted conditions.

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There already have been cases of the patrons at bars not observing the ADPH’s order.

Mayor Walt Maddox Tweeted his concerns.

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He was joined by the West Alabama’s Chamber of Commerce Jim Page:

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Some University of Alabama students have returned to Tuscaloosa already.  Of course some never left. Many had legitimate reasons, including concerns over moving back to a hometown that has been more heavily affected by the Coronavirus than Tuscaloosa. Some students who have come back to Tuscaloosa, even before the University has laid out its specific plans about on-campus learning, were doubtlessly bored. In off campus neighborhoods students have been observed in violation of the ADPH orders. Now that bars have been reopened there will doubtlessly be additional problems.

There have been repeated violations of fire codes due to overcrowding at bars that cater to students. There may be some kind of appeal to many people of the idea of being packed like sardines into a smokey bar. More so than restaurants and other businesses, bars and “hybrid bar/restaurants” have thrived on crowded conditions.

South Korea, which has been exemplary in combating the spread of the Cononavirus, had to walk back its plans after a spike in cases was largely attributed to the reopening of bars and nightclubs. Its capitol Seoul ordered the closure of all clubs and bars over concerns of a second coronavirus wave of infections.

The University has formed a task force to look into what kind of learning environment should exist on campus when the school reopens. Off-campus behavior is an entirely different matter. There are legitimate concerns over returning students undoing the efforts that have been taken by Tuscaloosa residents to “flatten the curve” of Coronavirus cases.

Sophia McCollough reported for San Diego’s 7-NBC that the University of California is implementing a “ground breaking coronavirus testing program for roughly 65,000 of its students, staff and faculty.”

One permanent resident of Tuscaloosa has reservations about the efficacy of such testing if it occurred at the University. “Let’s assume 25,000 students return to UA from all over the world. They would need to quarantine completely for two weeks in order to assure they didn’t bring the virus to campus.”

She said that “testing only gives a snapshot of the persons health at the moment of the test.” Furthermore, “Once tested, a person can be infected the next moment if they come in contact with someone. It almost gives a false sense of security which I think is not helpful. Especially with students who will think a negative test is a license to go back to their usual routines.” She added that “monitoring fever and continuing social distances is the best we will be able to do until there is a treatment. That would mean no sorority rush, no parties, limiting class sizes. And many other precautions.”

Whether the University of Alabama’s football team will return to Bryant Denny Stadium, along with tailgating on the Quad, has yet to be decided. The University must make any kind of commitment at least six weeks before the season would normally begin, in order to adequately prepare.

Neil Paine in FiveThirtyEight wrote about what it likely would take for sports fans to feel safe. He based his conclusions on national polls that had been conducted. Many fans felt that the virus must be controlled before the resumption of any games. Some people actually favored games being played in empty stadiums or arenas without fans.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has claimed that football is the ‘perfect set up for spreading’ COVID-19 virus. Al.com‘s Mark Heim wrote that “Dr. Anthony Fauci believes if the season were scheduled to start today, it would ‘impossible’ to play football.”

Some Crimson Tide fans would likely be willing to risk their lives and the lives of other fans and football players in order to have things returning to normal with a stadium full of over 100,000 people screaming “Roll Tide.” And the impact on Tuscaloosa’s economy of a truncated or cancelled season would be significant.

Just what steps the City of Tuscaloosa can take to enforce the ADPH’s orders will be a matter for its legal department to determine. A question may remain about the capacity of its police force to handle the much greater than normal public safety burden. Perhaps a joint effort in terms of communication and law enforcement between the city and the University can be made? The jurisdictions of town and gown now seem more blurred than ever before.

 

 

 

 

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Reopening T-Town

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Like many other cities Tuscaloosa has been impacted by its state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Revenues have dropped significantly during a State of Alabama mandated closure of many businesses. A revised budget chart produced by the City of Tuscaloosa projects a steady downward trend because of the impact of the virus.

Impact GFComplicating matters is the shutdown of the University of Alabama and the resultant loss of over 20,000 student residents. The specific impact of student spending is not certain but a city graphic indicates particularly significant losses in sales tax revenues from bars and restaurants.

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The University is scheduled to reopen, but specific details of how it will operate have not been made public. How the return of Alabama football will be managed is also uncertain. Tuscaloosa’s tourism is centered on the University’s sports schedule. The revenue generated by football alone has been estimated to be $103 million in a season, with $20 million per home game.  The loss of tourism has already had a significant impact.

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The West Alabama Chamber of Commerce responded to the impact of the pandemic on small businesses in an innovative way by partnering with private entities in creating a Small Business Relief Fund.

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Thus far the Chamber through the Community Foundation of West Alabama has distributed over $200,000 to small businesses in the West Alabama area. Many local businesses haven’t benefited from the small business loans offered by the federal government under the Paycheck Protection Program.

For a couple of years on weekends the downtown area of Tuscaloosa has been part of a downtown entertainment district. In the designated areas alcoholic beverages may be purchased from participating businesses and carried in the open. For the last two years local bar and restaurant owners, led by the owner of Cravings Dan Robinson, have been lobbying city hall to extend the district to seven days a week. Since bars and restaurants have been particularly impacted by the COVID-19 policies, it is thought by some that the allowing the sale of alcohol on seven days a week might be their salvation. Others fear that creating a Bourbon Street atmosphere in Tuscaloosa’s downtown  will require a much greater public safety investment for a city that is already reeling from the loss of General Fund revenues.

In any event the return to “normal” in terms of opening restaurants and bars, concert venues, theaters and the like may be difficult if only for the reason that many people will be  reluctant to patronize them. Any loosening of  shelter-in-place restrictions is also opposed by many public health experts.

In the article “A profound danger’: Experts warn against broad U.S. reopening amid COVID-19 pandemic” The Los Angeles Times‘s J Brady McCollough reported some of the concerns of leading health experts:

“It’s clear to me we are at a critical moment of this fight,” Johns Hopkins University epidemiologist Caitlin Rivers told the House Committee on Appropriations on Wednesday.

The number of new cases must decline for at least two weeks; the state must be able to perform contact tracing on any new cases; there has to be enough testing to diagnose any person with symptoms; and the healthcare system must have the capacity to treat all patients, not just those with COVID-19.

“To my knowledge, there are no states that meet all four of those criteria,”  Rivers said.

The committee had already heard from Dr. Thomas Frieden, the former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who laid out 10 ‘plain truths’ about the coronavirus. He predicted there would be 100,000 U.S. deaths by the end of May — the toll surpassed 73,000 Wednesday, according to Johns Hopkins University — and cautioned that this is just the beginning of a battle that could rage for not months, but years.

“We are all so impatient to restart our activities,” Frieden told the committee Wednesday morning. “Sheltering in place is a blunt but effective weapon. … We have to find balance between restarting our economy and letting the virus run rampant.

“Open-versus-closed is not a dichotomy. It’s more accurate to think of a dimmer dial than an on-off switch, with gradations to avoid undue risk. Another false dichotomy is between public health and economic security. The very best way to get our economy back is to control the virus, and economic stability is incredibly important to the public’s health.”

To reopen Tuscaloosa will require a balancing act between the needs of businesses to return to “normalcy” and the necessity of following the advice of public health experts in order to “flatten the curve” and avoid more people succumbing to the Coronavirus.

It’s literally a matter of life and death.

 

 

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COVID-19 and T-Town

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Because of the Coronavirus pandemic Tuscaloosa has been under stay-at-home orders for nearly a month. A limited city-wide curfew was announced on March 25th. Many businesses are either closed or operating in a limited way.

Mayor Walt Maddox announced that he would present a plan on April 28th about the next steps that the city would take.  “I will be presenting my plan to Restart Tuscaloosa which will be the fuel to address job losses, neighborhoods, response agencies, and (the city’s) financial future.”

Concerns about the overtaxing of medical facilities have driven the city’s response to the pandemic. Data from CovidActNow.org. was used to base projections on how the city’s hospitals would have been affected by the spread of the virus. The city’s orders have been coordinated with the state of Alabama’s policies. Alabama’s Governor Kay Ivey said that the state’s stay-at-home orders would not be lifted before the current April 30 deadline.

In addition to businesses that are considered “essential” certain outdoor areas, such as the Riverwalk can be used by people who practice social distancing. Humorous signage was created by the city to remind people about the six foot distancing requirement.

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The city has used social media to keep people informed. It’s website Tuscaloosa.com/COVID19 provides continual updates on the city’s response to the pandemic.

Mayor Maddox, like other city, state and national leaders, is in a difficult position. Peter Baker in the New York Times wrote: “With no vaccine or cure, the president, governors, mayors and county executives will have to decide how many deaths would be acceptable to restore a shattered economy.”

Tuscaloosa is a college town. With classes at the University of Alabama cancelled and the consequent departure of over 20,000 students the city has experienced an enormous negative economic impact. An article by Stephen M. Gavazzi in Forbes described the situation that exists in many college towns:

Until recently, college towns were thought to have a distinct economic advantage over municipalities that did not host an institution of higher learning. Colleges and universities were touted as “anchor institutions,” a term indicating their long-term investment in the communities they served. With the COVID-19 pandemic, however, these same towns now face very real economic peril.

Chief among the unique aspects of the college town is the back and forth movement of students and how those population swings impact the local economy. When students arrive on campus in the fall, businesses thrive. Apartments are rented, back to school supplies are purchased, etc. Once students settle in, they frequent coffee shops, restaurants, bars, and various entertainment venues surrounding campus. Home football games and other large social events hosted by universities add to the mix. Food and beverages are bought in copious quantities by participants in the revelry. Hotel rooms fill, collegiate merchandise is snapped up, and gas tanks are filled, among other purchases made by these weekend visitors.

When the academic year is over in the spring, students graduate or go back to their hometowns for the summer. Sports seasons are completed, and other campus events wind down. Hence, the college town population contracts for several months, and the economy slows to a trickle of its former self. In a normal year, this downturn is relatively brief, and it can be anticipated by local businesses. Now, however, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought the local economy to an almost immediate and complete standstill, and many months earlier than had been anticipated.

Georgia’s governor Brian Kemp has received a great deal of criticism for his decision to reopen gyms, hair salons, bowling alleys, tattoo and massage parlors and then, a only week afterwards,  movie theaters and restaurants. An article in Reuters (“With reopenings in U.S. South, some merchants lay out welcome mat, others fearful”) by Ann Saphir and Lindsay Dunsmuir reported on the reluctance of many businesses to reopen.

Mayor Maddox has repeatedly addressed the city council during virtual work sessions on the problems that would be associated with the premature reopening of businesses. As an example he said that a restaurant, if given the green light to reopen, would have to retrain its employees and stock perishable food. If the restaurant were to be ordered to close shortly afterwards it would then have seen a financial loss greater than it had experienced by remaining closed.

President Donald Trump has a fondness for the University of Alabama and has mentioned its football program when addressing the nation about the epidemic. Trump is quoted in the Los Angeles Times by David Lauter about his idea of what getting back to “normal” would be:

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

Lauter wrote, “Trump’s stressing of a return to full normality was telling — so was his use of Alabama college football as his touchstone.” He pointed out that the director of the White House’s coronavirus task force Dr. Deborah Birx was not as optimistic as Trump about returning to “normal.”  “Birx and her medical colleagues have made it clear that they don’t expect the country to return to true normal until a vaccine against the coronavirus — or an effective therapy — becomes widely available. That could still be a year to 18 months away.”

Returning to “normal” in T-Town may not occur for some time. The continued closure of the University of Alabama and, what to many people would be unimaginable, not having a packed stadium and tailgating for Crimson Tide football games in the Fall may be inevitable.

 

 

 

 

 

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