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.
Complicating 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.
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.
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.
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.