T-Town decides to let it burn

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The University of Alabama at Birmingham‘s infectious disease expert Dr. Michael Saag once said that bars were the fuel that fed the spread of COVID-19.

After closing bars in T-Town for fourteen days, Mayor Walt Maddox decided to reopen them on September 8th.

At the time of his decision 1,899 University of Alabama students had been infected. Since August 19th, nearly 1 in 15 University students had been infected.

The press release from the City of Tuscaloosa that announced the amended executive order gave this information:

Based on continued communication with The University of Alabama and the release of new data from The University of Alabama System on Friday evening, progress can be seen in the decline in daily averages since the last report. The City will continue to move forward with a measured and balanced response to protect our community’s health care system and economy.

“Two weeks ago, a surge of coronavirus cases on UA’s campus was threatening the continuation of in-person instruction for the Fall, plus creating potential long term impacts on DCH Regional Hospital,” Mayor Walt Maddox said. “With Fall in serious jeopardy, and at the request of the University, immediate and decisive action was required to protect our healthcare system and thousands of jobs.

Maddox had hinted in a Tuesday Council session on September 1st that he might modify his executive order. He said that he might make the decision as early as Friday. An economic relief measure for bars, the Lounge Assistance Program, was scheduled to go before the Council on September 15th.

Maddox had expressed a lot of concern over restaurants that converted into bars in evening hours. They were singled out in the new order. Accommodations were also made for students waiting outside of bars.

The order stipulated that “the City’s Infrastructure and Public Services Department will convert the space dedicated to street parking on The Strip to pedestrian right-of-way to allow for greater area outside for those waiting in lines to have the ability to practice appropriate social distancing. This conversion will occur each evening beginning at 6:01 p.m.”

A good deal of the impetus for the initial order that closed the bars came from the crowds that were seen outside of student bars. Large numbers of people were observed who were not wearing masks or socially distancing. The city took action in response to the University of Alabama‘s attempts to control the Coronavirus outbreak on campus.

Right before the city’s decision to reopen bars, the University of Alabama had extended its ban on in-person events until September 13th. It had already issued over 400 citations for COVID-19-related violations. The University informed students that off campus gatherings were prohibited by law and “University rule.” The school had previously allowed approved indoor gatherings on campus of no more than 50 people.

The City of Tuscaloosa’s new rules said that all “ABC lounge licensed establishments may operate at a reduced interior capacity of 50% of their occupancy as established by the fire marshal, not to exceed 100 persons.” The occupancy restrictions, which were not based on CDC standards, allowed twice the number of people indoors than the University had at first allowed for approved gatherings on campus.

Bars that were not licensed as lounges were required to “suspend walk up bar service and only allow alcohol sales to seated customers.” Customers would “not be allowed to enter the premises unless seating is available.”

In spite of the city’s claims about a decline in “daily averages” in the COVID-19 data, there was still a good deal of uncertainty. Al.com‘s Leada Gore reported:

Alabama could see more than 6,000 coronavirus deaths by January 2021, according to a key national forecast.

The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington forecasts the state will have 6,174 COVID-19 deaths by Jan. 1, 2021. That death toll could grow to 7,748 if social distancing mandates – including mask wearing – were eased. Universal masking, however, defined as 95% mask usage in public spaces, would drop that figure to 3,988 deaths.

NPR‘s Elissa Nadworny wrote that the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, which was considered a “potential model for reopening campuses,” had announced a two week lock down for undergraduates.

According to Nadworthy:

The University of Illinois has one of the largest mass testing programs of any American institution. The school is conducting, on average, between 10,000 and 15,000 saliva-based tests for COVID-19 daily, at times accounting for more than 2% of all testing done in the U.S. The decision to clamp down on students’ movements calls into question whether any amount of resources and safety precautions makes it safe to reopen college campuses.

Al.com‘s Michael Casagrande reported on what Dr. Ricky Friend, the Dean of the University of Alabama’s College of Community Health Sciences, had said about the University’s decision not to end in-person classes:

“From an epidemiologic standpoint, the 18- to 25-year old group is not going to suffer much disease burden,” Friend said. “But they will spread the virus and it’s incumbent of every campus member — faculty, staff, students — to practice [University] guidelines wherever they go.”

Al.com‘s Conner Sheet‘s article “‘You don’t exist’: Inside UA’s COVID-19 isolation dorms” painted a stark picture of campus life under quarantine. He said that daily life in an “Alabama isolation dorm can be boring and bleak.” He wrote:

In recent days, students’ family members and Tuscaloosa residents who are not UA students, faculty or staff have called for the university to institute additional measures to ensure it is doing everything possible to ensure more students and locals don’t contract COVID-19.

Some believe that the majority of sick students should not remain on campus after receiving positive test results.

Reportedly hundreds of University students withdrew from school before tuition payments were due.

University of Alabama professor Michael Innis-Jimenez wrote an open letter to University of Alabama officials that was published in Al.com. Innis-Jimenez called for measures “to protect the health of all of us in Tuscaloosa and home communities”:

1. Move all instruction online.

2. Test ALL students for COVID-19 at university expense.

3. Start a staggered move-out (over 3 weeks) of all students who test negative. Recommend that they isolate at home for two weeks and notify the receiving state’s department of health that they are traveling from a known hot-spot.

4. Isolate ALL students (regardless of if they live on or off campus) in university isolation space at university expense. This includes meals and basic living accessories including furniture, microwave oven, and legitimate isolation from other students and non-medical employees. Students should stay in isolation until a doctor deems they are no longer infectious.

5. If COVID-19 positive students refuse to remain in isolation and/or their parents pick them up, assist them in packing in a way that minimizes the danger to others and immediately notify the receiving state’s department of that the COVID positive and possibly infectious student is returning home.

A petition from the United Campus Workers of Alabama includes this statement;

According to the September 4th UA System Covid-19 Dashboard update, 846 students have tested positive for the virus at the University of Alabama since August 28th, bringing UA’s cumulative case total to over 2,000 students. Many colleges and universities across the country with infection levels far below UA’s are shifting to only online classes in order to protect students and workers from infection. For weeks, UA has insisted “nothing has gone wrong” despite the hundreds of students who have been infected by the virus, quarantined in substandard conditions, and disciplined by the university. All the while, local and national media have run dozens of stories on UA’s rising case count and administrative missteps.

As our case numbers continue to rise, the UA administration must take responsibility for the unsafe situations in which they are putting students, workers, and the Tuscaloosa community. Regardless of its plans for the future of on-campus instruction this semester, UA must operate more transparently and responsibly in the best interests of students, workers and the local community.

In an op-ed in the University’s student newspaper The Crimson White Staff columnist Kelby Hutchinson called for the resignation of University President Stuart R Bell and “a formal apology to the student body for the greed that drove them to put human lives at risk for the benefit of their bottom line.”

The University’s best and brightest minds have labored long and hard on its plans to cope with the Coronavirus. The University has spent millions of dollars in Covid related infrastructure improvements. It has presented highly detailed instructions to students on what they are expected to do.

The University’s Student Government Association President Demarcus Joiner asked students to “continue abiding by the health and safety protocols that keep us all safe.”

The lyrics of Jerry Garcia‘s song “Deal” described a card game:

Since it costs a lot to win, and even more to lose,
You and me bound to spend some time wond’rin’ what to choose.
Goes to show, you don’t ever know,
Watch each card you play and play it slow,
Wait until that deal come round,
Don’t you let that deal go down, no, no.

There is a lot at stake in how the city and university’s plans pan out. With any luck they will be playing a winning hand.

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