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.
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?