Covid: the Chamber, the City and Christmas in T-Town

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On December 7th, 2020, Tuscaloosa News reporter Jason Morton wrote: “With COVID-19 cases on a continual climb in the Tuscaloosa area, city officials are taking initial steps to minimize crowds and reduce gatherings. On Monday, City Hall announced that access to all city-owned facilities would be temporarily limited or halted. The decision comes as DCH Health System reported four straight days of 100 or more inpatients suffering from COVID-19, with a total of 138 listed on Monday.”

Some of the city’s concerns doubtlessly were due to the numbers of city personnel who are out with Covid. But the dramatic increase in Coronavirus cases after the Thanksgiving holiday and Iron Bowl were troubling.

As Jason Morton reported in another Tuscaloosa News story:

With four straight days of 100 or more inpatients at DCH Health System who are battling COVID-19, local health and government officials on Monday urged all residents to remain vigilant against the spread of the novel coronavirus. Andy North described as an “ebb and flow” of patient load, the local health system has not become overwhelmed by the influx of new patients suffering from COVID-19.

No patients, or at least not enough to be statistically relevant, age 24 or younger have died. However, about 5.3% of those in the 50-64 age range have died, based on the latest DCH data.

And while the pending vaccine may help reduce these numbers even further, North said DCH isn’t expecting to have any doses available until the end of the year, at the earliest.

“We are hoping for sooner rather than later,” North said, “because even with the flexibility we’ve put into place, we are under a heavy load.”

Although the use of city facilities is being curtailed, there are no plans to close such places as bars, which are considered by pandemic experts to be Covid hot spots. As Morton reported: “Maddox said there were no immediate plans to institute limitations on businesses or public gatherings at the local level beyond what Gov. Kay Ivey’s latest ‘Safer at Home’ order already requires.”

At the Pre-Council meeting on December 8th, 2020, Mayor Maddox said that he had discussed with the Chief Medical Officer at DCH Dr. Robin Wilson the possibility that cases of Covid-19 will be layered. This would be the case when each holiday period –Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years–brought on a new wave of infections.

It was only at the beginning of December, during the Chamber of Commerce of West Alabama’s annual “State of the Economy” meeting, that speakers bemoaned the effect that Covid regulations had on the economic outlook. Jason Morton wrote:

“We have a lot of the ingredients in place for a recipe for economic growth,” said John Norris V, founder and managing director of wealth and investments with Mountain Brook-based Oakworth Capital Bank. “The biggest impediment to U.S. growth going forward is going to be our politicians.”

“The enemy is us. The enemy is the politicians and whether they’re going to shut down the economy again.”

The city’s reluctance to go beyond the state of Alabama‘s “Safer At Home” order may have had legal justifications. There were two City Council members at least who had justified their approval of a liquor license for the University of Alabama‘s Kappa Delta Farm Party on the basis that the city might have been sued. (The party was eventually nixed by the University though.) WSFA/12‘s Kelvin Reynolds reported, “Both City Council [Kip Tyner and Sonya McKinstry] members said the city could have been at risk of being sued if they didn’t approve the license under the circumstances.”

Throughout the country and the world, for that matter, either closures or strict limitations have been placed on many businesses. 84% of California‘s population, as reported in the LA Times, is affected by a massive shutdown.

Mayor Walt Maddox, if nothing else, is certainly a politician. He seems to be caught between a rock and a hard place. On one hand, there are conditions that have warranted shutting down city facilities. On the other, is the Chamber, where one of its speakers said that politicians are the “enemies.” Of course, if the healthcare system ever reaches a critical enough state, Maddox will have no choice in instituting another “lockdown.” The Chamber will doubtlessly support another such necessary lockdown.

During the last lockdown, essential services were maintained. People were still allowed to go to work, shop for groceries, exercise outdoors, have their cars worked on, go to doctors, and make deposits in banks. But businesses such as restaurants and bars weren’t allowed to operate. Many of the hardest hit businesses were small and locally owned. As a consequence, the city had a business relief program and even a relief package specifically for bars.

Many of the problems associated with bars involved those who had large numbers of University students. The city had occupancy limits, but some establishments were still allowed to have as many as 150 patrons. In many cities there was a cap for the number of people allowed at bars. The city’s legal staff has insisted that it is constrained by the guidelines of the state and Alabama Beverage Control. The mayor has also repeatedly emphasized the inability of the Tuscaloosa Police Department to enforce the Covid laws.

What may ultimately be a redeeming force in combating the spread of the Coronavirus will be the University of Alabama‘s enforcement of limitations on off-campus student gatherings. University police have already issued many student non-academic misconduct citations (SNAMs) for such things as house parties. The decision of the University to revoke permission for the Kappa Delta Farm Party was a good sign. Will the University be able to continue to lay down the law and impose penalties that will deter large gatherings at house parties or bars? It may well be that only the University has any true jurisdiction when it comes to regulating student behavior. Many University students will stay in T-Town for the holidays, although most will leave Tuscaloosa. Hopefully the University’s police force will still have a presence during the holiday period.

Approximately 25,000 University students should be returning to Tuscaloosa in January and whatever respite their absence may have provided will be over just as soon as the year 2021 begins. To a great extent Tuscaloosa‘s ability to cope with the Coronavirus will depend on the behavior of University students. That will be largely up to how well the University of Alabama‘s administration can control its students.

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