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
188.8.131.52.1 In areas not in excess of 10,000 sq.ft., the occupant load shall not exceed one person in 5 sq. ft.
184.108.40.206.2 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.