Although nearly seven percent of University of Alabama students have tested positive for the Coronavirus, as Al.com‘s Michael Casagrande reported, there was a reduction in the positives last week. He wrote that the “number of daily positive tests dipped to 42 over the previous seven days after that figure sat at 125 last week.”
Still, the University of Alabama leads the nation’s schools in the number of students who’ve tested positive with over 2,000 reported cases. On September 10, 2020, Michael Innis-Jimenez‘s blog The UA Sentinel compared the school’s total infections to the total numbers in several states:
The last reported 7-day total of newly infected UA students is greater than the last 7-day totals for the entire states of Wisconsin, Tennessee, Indiana, Kentucky, New York Iowa Arizona, Washington, Nebraska, Mississippi, Kansas, Arkansas, Maryland, New Jersey, Utah, South Carolina, Minnesota, Colorado, Massachusetts, South Dakota, Nevada, West Virginia, Oregon, Hawaii, Connecticut, New Mexico, Montana, Rhode Island, Alaska, Wyoming, Vermont, Delaware, North Dakota, New Hampshire, Maine, and the State of Alabama. That’s right. UA has more than the State of Alabama because the University of Alabama is NOT properly reporting these positives to the Alabama Department of Public Health as required to do. If UA was a state, the last seven days of available data would make UA the state with the 15th highest total. Take a second to absorb that. The University of Alabama’s 7-day total puts UA with more new infections than 35 other American states. 35!
Innis-Jimenez was featured in a September 12, 2020 article by Lauren Aratani in The Guardian “Quarantine dorms’ and suspensions: US universities fight Covid surges.” Aratani wrote:
Michael Innis-Jiminez, a professor of American Studies at the University of Alabama, said that many faculty members at his university have been wondering why the institution has not taken more serious actions as cases on campus have risen to nearly 2,000. Instead, the university’s top medical dean said that he was “cautiously optimistic” as new cases a day dropped from 164 to 125 last Friday. Some students were forced out of their dorms last month as the university moved to dedicate more dorms to quarantine students.
Innis-Jiminez said there were specific concerns about how the university will be sending students home for Thanksgiving as in-person classes are scheduled to end right before the holiday. Universities have already come under fire for sending students home after outbreaks on campus, potentially sending the virus to students’ home communities.
News about the new dip in positives at the University was released on the same day that Dr. Deborah Birx, the head of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, visited T-Town. Michael Casagrande reported:
She complimented the barbeque, the university’s response to the outbreak and looked to the future. “I can’t say Roll Tide because I’m going to other SEC schools,” she said with a grin at the end of her prepared remarks, “but I’ll say it anyway and wish you best of luck in this football season.”
An article in Sports Illustrated, published on September 11, 2020, by Ross Dellenger connected the dots between college town infection rates and football fan attendence. He wrote:
According to data from the CDC, seven of the top eight states in highest infection rates are home to at least one SEC team, and nine of the league’s 14 college towns are producing enough cases daily to be deemed sites with “uncontrollable spread,” according to the Harvard Global Health Institute. Harvard’s metric uses a seven-day rolling average of daily new virus cases per 100,000 people. Anything over 25 cases is considered uncontrollable.
Tuscaloosa is arguably one of the college towns most associated with college football. Dellenger wrote about the football stadiums in Alabama:
Some medical experts believe stadiums will become super spreaders of a virus that is already impacting a community or state. Take for instance Alabama, which has the potential to produce some of the biggest crowds in America this fall. Three of its five FBS programs are allowing per-game capacities of 36,000 (UAB), 20,400 (Alabama) and 17,500 (Auburn). Though not expected to max its capacity, UAB is allowing 50% attendance after moving its games to the 71,600-seat Legion Field.
The city of Tuscaloosa‘s Mayor Walt Maddox has been very concerned about the impact of reduced football attendance on the city’s finances. What would a football weekend be without T-Town‘s watering holes? After a fourteen day “ban,” he relaxed the conditions that he had placed on bars. As Jason Morton reported in the Tuscaloosa News:
These changes take effect as local coronavirus cases continue an overall decline in Tuscaloosa County.
While the University of Alabama added 846 student coronavirus cases Friday to its UA System Dashboard numbers, bringing the campus total to 2,047, this increase marked a decline in daily averages, with Thursday’s student positives dropping to 65 for the day, according to the latest data provided by UA.
Maddox said enforcement and coronavirus-related data would be analyzed daily to determine the effectiveness of the latest executive order, but if the trends hold true then additional relaxations could come in the near future.
Bars were reopened on September 8, 2020, with “50 percent of capacity, as determined by the fire marshal, not to exceed 100 people.” Maddox said that enforcement of regulations would be “stepped up as the week gives way to the weekend.”
However on the Tuesday that bars reopened, WBRC Fox 6‘s reporter Ugochi Iloka posted images of unmasked, non-socially distanced crowds gathered outside of one popular student bar.
WAAY/31 ran a story on August 21, 2020, about the University of Alabama having cancelled all student events. The Crimson White‘s Jessa Reid-Bolling reported that on August 31, 2020, the moratorium on student events had been extended beyond the originally planned 14 days. Reid-Bolling wrote “The original moratorium was issued on Aug. 24 at the same time that Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox had announced that bars would be closed and bar services would be suspended for two weeks.” The University’s extension was attributed to the numbers of students who had been issued “conduct referrals.”
On September 10, 2020 the Montgomery Advertiser‘s Melissa Brown reported that “at least 639 University of Alabama students have been sanctioned in recent weeks for breaking COVID-19 restrictions in Tuscaloosa.” She wrote:
A UA spokesperson said Thursday that a suspension of one student organization is pending, while 33 individual students have been “effectively” suspended from campus while their “conduct cases proceed through due process.“
While the University was extending its moratorium the city was reopening bars. The University did relax some of its restrictions. Effective on September 14th, 2020, students were allowed to once again use study spaces and dining areas, “with strict adherence to safety guidelines.” Students in the same residence halls were allowed to visit each other’s rooms.
Katherine Ellen Foley in Quartz explained the rationale behind social distancing. She wrote that six foot of social distancing was based on guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. She pointed out that, while the World Health Organization recommended only three feet of separation, that “a particle fluid dynamicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology suggested that people might do well to stay more than 27 feet apart to avoid infecting one another.”
It is remarkable that the University of Alabama has required that any indoor gatherings have no more than fifty people.
There will be no large student organized events. This includes band parties, swaps, formals, out-of-town and off-campus parties or large gatherings of any kind. The guidelines for indoor events are no more than 50 individuals, with no more than 100 for outdoor events. Most importantly, attendance limits depend on the distance capacity of the space, so each event space is different and may not allow for even 50 individuals, depending on the ability to social distance within the space. (my emphasis) These restrictions may be adjusted, up or down, if risks associated with COVID-19 change.
Yet, if students at the University were to go to an off-campus bar, based on the city of Tuscaloosa‘s new order, they may find themselves indoors with up to 100 people. A chart that the city provided breaks down the numbers for bars in terms of occupancy. There are a number of bars in T-Town that could conceivably accommodate 100 people.
The Business Insider‘s Conner Perrett wrote an article “Business owners in college towns are ‘trying to do everything’ they can to stay afloat” about the impact of COVID-19 pandemic on college towns. Although T-Town isn’t mentioned, Tuscaloosa is certainly just as impacted as Chapel Hill, North Carolina or Athens, Ohio. The emphasis on re-opening student bars in Tuscaloosa may have its basis in Mayor Maddox‘s idea of an “experience economy” where bars are a vital part of the recreation sector of Tuscaloosa‘s economy.
Bars, however, have been hot spots for the Coronavirus. NPR‘s Will Stone reported that “Public health experts and top health officials, including the Dr. Tony Fauci, say the evidence is abundantly clear: When bars open, infections tend to follow.” Many bars also have unique problems associated with ventilation and smoking, as an article in the Conversation “What a smoky bar can teach us about the ‘6-foot rule’ during the COVID-19 pandemic” points out.
Perhaps, rather than depending on the city of Tuscaloosa to regulate bars, the University of Alabama might have done as the University of Wisconsin did. Undergraduate students were essentially locked down after a rise in COVID-19 cases.
Chancellor Rebecca Blank on September 7, 2020, issued a directive:
A growing number of COVID-19 cases have been detected, particularly among students living off-campus, and can be linked to situations where people did not wear face coverings or practice physical distancing. We see this reflected in the data, but it’s also apparent in social media posts and in conversations with students who have tested positive. Unfortunately, too many students have chosen to host or participate in social gatherings that seem to demonstrate a high disregard for the seriousness of this virus and the risk to our entire community.
Undergraduates were restricted to activities such as going to class and shopping for food. Students would be held “accountable for their actions on and off campus, up to and including emergency suspension. Members of the community can report unsafe behavior.”
Amanda Todd with the university’s Vice Chancellor of Finance and Administration office responded to an inquiry about bars, “Bars in Madison are closed, except for outdoor seating. But since the drinking age is 21, it’s unlikely that undergrads would be accessing them in any case. In addition, given the Chancellor’s directive to stay home with limited exceptions for going to class, medical appointments, we would not want to see our undergrads congregating even outdoors with non-alcoholic beverages.”
To the extent that the steps taken at the University of Wisconsin worked, the school was perhaps able to reduce student related contagion without closing its bars.
Whether the city of Tuscaloosa will have made its community safer by its new order on bar regulation may be reflected in the DCH Health System Covid-19 dashboard, which showed an increase in patients after the Labor Day weekend.
With the University of Alabama‘s first home football game scheduled for October 3, 2020, hopefully the diligence of both the city and University will have resulted in a good outcome.