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?