Superspreaders in T-Town?

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Bars and other venues that serve alcohol in T-Town are potentially “superspreaders” of the Coronavirus.

Even talking in poorly ventilated, close quarters may be lethal. Al.com‘s John Sharp wrote:

The biggest concern with night clubs is the propensity for congregation, according to Dr. Ellen Eaton, assistant professor of medicine at the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Division of Infectious Diseases. Mix alcohol with music, and people become “less diligent” toward hand hygiene and maintaining social distancing, Eaton said.

“Anytime someone is around and dancing and singing and after a few hours and a few drinks, folks are not mindful of face coverings,” said Eaton. “And as the hours pass on, I imagine you see less diligence with hand hygiene and sharing spaces and all of those are high-risk behaviors we would not recommend at this time.”

Eaton compared the risks at a night club to that of a choir practice that generated attention from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this week. The CDC examined a deadly outbreak of a 2-1/2-hour choir practice that occurred in early March in Skagit County, Washington. Attended by 61 people, the March 10 practice infected 52 people (87%) with COVID-19 symptoms and has since been described as a “super spreader” event.

A new study, published Wednesday in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, showed that simply talking in a venue that is not well-ventilated, can transmit the virus from person to person through tiny droplets that are suspended in air for up to 14 minutes.

A CDC report on a superspreader event concluded:

The potential for superspreader events underscores the importance of physical distancing, including avoiding gathering in large groups, to control spread of COVID-19. Enhancing community awareness can encourage symptomatic persons and contacts of ill persons to isolate or self-quarantine to prevent ongoing transmission.

It’s no wonder that bars and restaurants are closing. An article by Restaurant and bar owners say social distancing could wipe out their industry.” Reporting that “bars are even worse off than restaurants,” they wrote:

Restaurant owners and managers are grappling with the brutal math that underpins their industry. Margins are razor thin, forcing eateries and bars to pack in customers every night, and especially on the weekends, in order to stay afloat. In the toughest markets, that means multiple waves of guests, and tables that are pushed together as closely as possible.

CNN‘s Shana Clarke described how restaurants might cope with the new strictures imposed by the pandemic. She wrote that restaurants might offer surgical gloves, hand sanitizer and masks to diners as they enter the premise.  Also restaurants might utilize disposable dishware and offer salt, pepper, ketchup and other condiments by request only.

After the University of Alabama ended its on-campus instruction in March, the cottage industry in the University’s vicinity that catered to students has been particularly hard hit. Traditional watering holes have closed for good, including Wilhagan’s Grille & Tap Room and The Downtown Pub. While neither of these establishments were primarily serving students, a hybrid bar/restaurant Innisfree known for its popularity with students has resorted to a form of social distancing.

Innisfree Pub is operating at fifty percent capacity according to a report by ABC 33/40:

Innisfree Pub reopened on Wednesday and told ABC 33/40 their increased safety plans.

“We’ve taken the precautions that we’re supposed to, but we’re just happy to be open and have people sitting down,” said Nick Snead, Innisfree Manager.

“You can’t cram three hundred people in here like we do on a game day, but we’ve moved the tables around and have around 160 people and if people are trying to group we’ll advise them [on] social distance,” Snead said.

ABC 33/40 reported that as of mid-May there had been twenty-two businesses in Tuscaloosa caught violating reopening rules. There were some incidents involving patrons who while waiting in line did not observe the required social distancing.

The University will reopen in August with some form of face to face learning. What methods of social distancing will be required by the school are as yet to be established.

Unless the Alabama Department of Public Heath‘s orders on operating bars and restaurants are considerably relaxed, many of the over twenty-five thousand returning University students will find it impossible to return to their routines that involved densely packed drinking environments.

It may well be that many of the venues that they were accustomed to patronizing may no longer be in business.

 

 

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“Safely” reopening T-Town

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It’s an entirely new ball game in T-Town now. Alabama’s Governor Ivy updated the Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH)’s “Safer at Home” order.

City of Tuscaloosa’s Mayor Walt Maddox repealed the April 28th Executive Order that adopted the Reopen Tuscaloosa plan, as reported by Jason Morton in the Tuscaloosa News.

Now restaurants, bars and other businesses can operate under restricted conditions.

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There already have been cases of the patrons at bars not observing the ADPH’s order.

Mayor Walt Maddox Tweeted his concerns.

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He was joined by the West Alabama’s Chamber of Commerce Jim Page:

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Some University of Alabama students have returned to Tuscaloosa already.  Of course some never left. Many had legitimate reasons, including concerns over moving back to a hometown that has been more heavily affected by the Coronavirus than Tuscaloosa. Some students who have come back to Tuscaloosa, even before the University has laid out its specific plans about on-campus learning, were doubtlessly bored. In off campus neighborhoods students have been observed in violation of the ADPH orders. Now that bars have been reopened there will doubtlessly be additional problems.

There have been repeated violations of fire codes due to overcrowding at bars that cater to students. There may be some kind of appeal to many people of the idea of being packed like sardines into a smokey bar. More so than restaurants and other businesses, bars and “hybrid bar/restaurants” have thrived on crowded conditions.

South Korea, which has been exemplary in combating the spread of the Cononavirus, had to walk back its plans after a spike in cases was largely attributed to the reopening of bars and nightclubs. Its capitol Seoul ordered the closure of all clubs and bars over concerns of a second coronavirus wave of infections.

The University has formed a task force to look into what kind of learning environment should exist on campus when the school reopens. Off-campus behavior is an entirely different matter. There are legitimate concerns over returning students undoing the efforts that have been taken by Tuscaloosa residents to “flatten the curve” of Coronavirus cases.

Sophia McCollough reported for San Diego’s 7-NBC that the University of California is implementing a “ground breaking coronavirus testing program for roughly 65,000 of its students, staff and faculty.”

One permanent resident of Tuscaloosa has reservations about the efficacy of such testing if it occurred at the University. “Let’s assume 25,000 students return to UA from all over the world. They would need to quarantine completely for two weeks in order to assure they didn’t bring the virus to campus.”

She said that “testing only gives a snapshot of the persons health at the moment of the test.” Furthermore, “Once tested, a person can be infected the next moment if they come in contact with someone. It almost gives a false sense of security which I think is not helpful. Especially with students who will think a negative test is a license to go back to their usual routines.” She added that “monitoring fever and continuing social distances is the best we will be able to do until there is a treatment. That would mean no sorority rush, no parties, limiting class sizes. And many other precautions.”

Whether the University of Alabama’s football team will return to Bryant Denny Stadium, along with tailgating on the Quad, has yet to be decided. The University must make any kind of commitment at least six weeks before the season would normally begin, in order to adequately prepare.

Neil Paine in FiveThirtyEight wrote about what it likely would take for sports fans to feel safe. He based his conclusions on national polls that had been conducted. Many fans felt that the virus must be controlled before the resumption of any games. Some people actually favored games being played in empty stadiums or arenas without fans.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has claimed that football is the ‘perfect set up for spreading’ COVID-19 virus. Al.com‘s Mark Heim wrote that “Dr. Anthony Fauci believes if the season were scheduled to start today, it would ‘impossible’ to play football.”

Some Crimson Tide fans would likely be willing to risk their lives and the lives of other fans and football players in order to have things returning to normal with a stadium full of over 100,000 people screaming “Roll Tide.” And the impact on Tuscaloosa’s economy of a truncated or cancelled season would be significant.

Just what steps the City of Tuscaloosa can take to enforce the ADPH’s orders will be a matter for its legal department to determine. A question may remain about the capacity of its police force to handle the much greater than normal public safety burden. Perhaps a joint effort in terms of communication and law enforcement between the city and the University can be made? The jurisdictions of town and gown now seem more blurred than ever before.

 

 

 

 

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Reopening T-Town

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Like many other cities Tuscaloosa has been impacted by its state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Revenues have dropped significantly during a State of Alabama mandated closure of many businesses. A revised budget chart produced by the City of Tuscaloosa projects a steady downward trend because of the impact of the virus.

Impact GFComplicating matters is the shutdown of the University of Alabama and the resultant loss of over 20,000 student residents. The specific impact of student spending is not certain but a city graphic indicates particularly significant losses in sales tax revenues from bars and restaurants.

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The University is scheduled to reopen, but specific details of how it will operate have not been made public. How the return of Alabama football will be managed is also uncertain. Tuscaloosa’s tourism is centered on the University’s sports schedule. The revenue generated by football alone has been estimated to be $103 million in a season, with $20 million per home game.  The loss of tourism has already had a significant impact.

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The West Alabama Chamber of Commerce responded to the impact of the pandemic on small businesses in an innovative way by partnering with private entities in creating a Small Business Relief Fund.

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Thus far the Chamber through the Community Foundation of West Alabama has distributed over $200,000 to small businesses in the West Alabama area. Many local businesses haven’t benefited from the small business loans offered by the federal government under the Paycheck Protection Program.

For a couple of years on weekends the downtown area of Tuscaloosa has been part of a downtown entertainment district. In the designated areas alcoholic beverages may be purchased from participating businesses and carried in the open. For the last two years local bar and restaurant owners, led by the owner of Cravings Dan Robinson, have been lobbying city hall to extend the district to seven days a week. Since bars and restaurants have been particularly impacted by the COVID-19 policies, it is thought by some that the allowing the sale of alcohol on seven days a week might be their salvation. Others fear that creating a Bourbon Street atmosphere in Tuscaloosa’s downtown  will require a much greater public safety investment for a city that is already reeling from the loss of General Fund revenues.

In any event the return to “normal” in terms of opening restaurants and bars, concert venues, theaters and the like may be difficult if only for the reason that many people will be  reluctant to patronize them. Any loosening of  shelter-in-place restrictions is also opposed by many public health experts.

In the article “A profound danger’: Experts warn against broad U.S. reopening amid COVID-19 pandemic” The Los Angeles Times‘s J Brady McCollough reported some of the concerns of leading health experts:

“It’s clear to me we are at a critical moment of this fight,” Johns Hopkins University epidemiologist Caitlin Rivers told the House Committee on Appropriations on Wednesday.

The number of new cases must decline for at least two weeks; the state must be able to perform contact tracing on any new cases; there has to be enough testing to diagnose any person with symptoms; and the healthcare system must have the capacity to treat all patients, not just those with COVID-19.

“To my knowledge, there are no states that meet all four of those criteria,”  Rivers said.

The committee had already heard from Dr. Thomas Frieden, the former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who laid out 10 ‘plain truths’ about the coronavirus. He predicted there would be 100,000 U.S. deaths by the end of May — the toll surpassed 73,000 Wednesday, according to Johns Hopkins University — and cautioned that this is just the beginning of a battle that could rage for not months, but years.

“We are all so impatient to restart our activities,” Frieden told the committee Wednesday morning. “Sheltering in place is a blunt but effective weapon. … We have to find balance between restarting our economy and letting the virus run rampant.

“Open-versus-closed is not a dichotomy. It’s more accurate to think of a dimmer dial than an on-off switch, with gradations to avoid undue risk. Another false dichotomy is between public health and economic security. The very best way to get our economy back is to control the virus, and economic stability is incredibly important to the public’s health.”

To reopen Tuscaloosa will require a balancing act between the needs of businesses to return to “normalcy” and the necessity of following the advice of public health experts in order to “flatten the curve” and avoid more people succumbing to the Coronavirus.

It’s literally a matter of life and death.

 

 

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COVID-19 and T-Town

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Because of the Coronavirus pandemic Tuscaloosa has been under stay-at-home orders for nearly a month. A limited city-wide curfew was announced on March 25th. Many businesses are either closed or operating in a limited way.

Mayor Walt Maddox announced that he would present a plan on April 28th about the next steps that the city would take.  “I will be presenting my plan to Restart Tuscaloosa which will be the fuel to address job losses, neighborhoods, response agencies, and (the city’s) financial future.”

Concerns about the overtaxing of medical facilities have driven the city’s response to the pandemic. Data from CovidActNow.org. was used to base projections on how the city’s hospitals would have been affected by the spread of the virus. The city’s orders have been coordinated with the state of Alabama’s policies. Alabama’s Governor Kay Ivey said that the state’s stay-at-home orders would not be lifted before the current April 30 deadline.

In addition to businesses that are considered “essential” certain outdoor areas, such as the Riverwalk can be used by people who practice social distancing. Humorous signage was created by the city to remind people about the six foot distancing requirement.

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The city has used social media to keep people informed. It’s website Tuscaloosa.com/COVID19 provides continual updates on the city’s response to the pandemic.

Mayor Maddox, like other city, state and national leaders, is in a difficult position. Peter Baker in the New York Times wrote: “With no vaccine or cure, the president, governors, mayors and county executives will have to decide how many deaths would be acceptable to restore a shattered economy.”

Tuscaloosa is a college town. With classes at the University of Alabama cancelled and the consequent departure of over 20,000 students the city has experienced an enormous negative economic impact. An article by Stephen M. Gavazzi in Forbes described the situation that exists in many college towns:

Until recently, college towns were thought to have a distinct economic advantage over municipalities that did not host an institution of higher learning. Colleges and universities were touted as “anchor institutions,” a term indicating their long-term investment in the communities they served. With the COVID-19 pandemic, however, these same towns now face very real economic peril.

Chief among the unique aspects of the college town is the back and forth movement of students and how those population swings impact the local economy. When students arrive on campus in the fall, businesses thrive. Apartments are rented, back to school supplies are purchased, etc. Once students settle in, they frequent coffee shops, restaurants, bars, and various entertainment venues surrounding campus. Home football games and other large social events hosted by universities add to the mix. Food and beverages are bought in copious quantities by participants in the revelry. Hotel rooms fill, collegiate merchandise is snapped up, and gas tanks are filled, among other purchases made by these weekend visitors.

When the academic year is over in the spring, students graduate or go back to their hometowns for the summer. Sports seasons are completed, and other campus events wind down. Hence, the college town population contracts for several months, and the economy slows to a trickle of its former self. In a normal year, this downturn is relatively brief, and it can be anticipated by local businesses. Now, however, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought the local economy to an almost immediate and complete standstill, and many months earlier than had been anticipated.

Georgia’s governor Brian Kemp has received a great deal of criticism for his decision to reopen gyms, hair salons, bowling alleys, tattoo and massage parlors and then, a only week afterwards,  movie theaters and restaurants. An article in Reuters (“With reopenings in U.S. South, some merchants lay out welcome mat, others fearful”) by Ann Saphir and Lindsay Dunsmuir reported on the reluctance of many businesses to reopen.

Mayor Maddox has repeatedly addressed the city council during virtual work sessions on the problems that would be associated with the premature reopening of businesses. As an example he said that a restaurant, if given the green light to reopen, would have to retrain its employees and stock perishable food. If the restaurant were to be ordered to close shortly afterwards it would then have seen a financial loss greater than it had experienced by remaining closed.

President Donald Trump has a fondness for the University of Alabama and has mentioned its football program when addressing the nation about the epidemic. Trump is quoted in the Los Angeles Times by David Lauter about his idea of what getting back to “normal” would be:

“Our normal is if you have 100,000 people in an Alabama football game — or 110,000, to be exact — we want 110,000 people. We want every seat occupied. Normal is not going to be where you have a game with 50,000 people.”

Lauter wrote, “Trump’s stressing of a return to full normality was telling — so was his use of Alabama college football as his touchstone.” He pointed out that the director of the White House’s coronavirus task force Dr. Deborah Birx was not as optimistic as Trump about returning to “normal.”  “Birx and her medical colleagues have made it clear that they don’t expect the country to return to true normal until a vaccine against the coronavirus — or an effective therapy — becomes widely available. That could still be a year to 18 months away.”

Returning to “normal” in T-Town may not occur for some time. The continued closure of the University of Alabama and, what to many people would be unimaginable, not having a packed stadium and tailgating for Crimson Tide football games in the Fall may be inevitable.

 

 

 

 

 

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Alcohol Prime-Time Killer?

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It seems that just about every time the Tuscaloosa City Council meets, it votes on approving special events retail licenses so that alcohol can be served at events involving University students. There are sometimes more than a dozen applications that are voted on at each meeting. The city’s Revenue Enforcement Manager has frequently described many of the events as “frat parties.” Downtown Entertainment LLC (one of many so named LLCs) is the entity that most frequently applies for the ABC license. One of its representatives  has said that in many cases the responsibility for verifying if those being served alcohol are of legal age is left up to security that provided by the fraternities. The Tuscaloosa Police Department does not have jurisdiction over the fraternity houses that are located on campus.

The City Council is currently at a stalemate over how to regulate bar security. Other cities have ordinances that stipulate the kind of training that employees of bars must have. Since there is such a high turnover of security personnel at local bars, there has been concern expressed at Council Committee meetings over training being prohibitively expensive. Problems at local bars have ranged from fire code violations to shootings. Some establishments have been shut down. But thousands of University of Alabama students frequent the cluster of bars located in the vicinity of the University. Enforcement of laws regarding under aged drinking has been difficult.

A new study by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism points out that there has been a dramatic increase in deaths of young people due to alcohol use.

Katelyn Newman in the USA Today article Alcohol Is Growing as a Prime-Time Killer quoted Dr. Gabriel Schnickel: “You see a lot of people, these younger folks who … think they’re drinking the same amount as their friends or same amount as people that they socialize with, but for them, it is doing irreversible damage to their liver. We see a lot of young people come in who are in the throes of alcoholic hepatitis who had no idea that they could end up in that situation and, certainly, the terror in their eyes when they hear that they may need a new liver.”

The University of Alabama has a strict policy on alcohol use that is intended to promote the safety and well being of its students. It says:

Individuals under 21 years of age are not permitted to consume alcohol or be in possession of alcohol. Alcohol paraphernalia (which includes but is not limited to: empty beer cans or bottles, shot glasses, etc.) are prohibited and considered a violation of policy. Individuals over the age of 21 may consume alcohol in designated areas on campus in a safe and responsible manner.

With the recent findings on the severity of the problems associated with alcohol use by young people, it would seem as if there would be a greater urgency in the enforcement of policies and laws on under aged drinking.

 

 

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T-Town: A One Elephant Town?

Bicentinnial Minerva Statue

The University of Alabama bestowed a statue of the Goddess Minerva to the citizens of Tuscaloosa in commemoration of the city’s Bicentennial Celebration on December 13, 2019.

As soon as the unveiling of the statue at the University’s Manderson Landing, if not beforehand, there were criticisms of the sculpture. Some citizens complained about the University’s choice of the Roman Goddess of Wisdom, in spite of the fact that she adorns the institutional seal of the University. Many people asked why a statue of Chief Tuskaloosa, the city’s namesake, wasn’t erected instead of one of a pagan goddess. Some would have doubtlessly preferred a statue of Jesus or even the football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant.  However most people appreciated Caleb O’Connor’s beautifully executed sculpture that was cast in Italy. The walkway  around the statue, designed by Craig R. Wedderspoon, replicated the route of the Black Warrior and was replete with historical milestones of Tuscaloosa’s history.

People who live in Tuscaloosa are acutely aware of the importance of the University and the impact that it has on their daily lives. Tuscaloosa is a “one elephant town.” An elephant is the mascot of the University’s sports teams. The Crimson Tide’s football team perennially wins championships. When a football game is played in Tuscaloosa the town’s population often doubles in size. The University is a major employer and contributes greatly to Tuscaloosa’s cultural life.

Of course, there are complaints about the University, which largely center around the bad behavior of some of its students. A civic group Tuscaloosa Neighbors Together did a survey in 2012 of opinion about living with students. As Jason Morton reported in The Tuscaloosa News, there was an “overwhelming opposition to any kind of student housing within a neighborhood.” Many of the problems that citizens have had with students can be attributed to underaged drinking.

The Historic District in Tuscaloosa has been steadily encroached upon by the University’s student population as the University has grown in size. For over a decade there have been complaints about vandalism, home invasions and property damage by students. Kelly Fitts, president of the Original City Association, once opined in The Tuscaloosa News about the “undesirable late-night activity and crime perpetrated by intoxicated patrons” of drinking establishments that are located in close proximity to the Historic District:

Some of these heavily intoxicated people, many of them young women, wander into our yards and, thinking they are home, try to enter our houses. It is a very dangerous situation that, left unaddressed, will result in dire consequences for the city and the university should someone lose their life.

The City of Tuscaloosa’s wants to create an “experience economy” through its Elevate initiative and the concomitant local sales tax increase. Speaking about the Elevate program at a Council committee meeting, Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox said:

I tell my staff all the time that I want us to dominate. What I mean is that I want to put into place the investments that will take this community to the next level. That’s why we passed Elevate.

It was never about the status quo Tuscaloosa. When you do something like this you either go bold or go home and we’ve decided to go bold as a community.

We have a sacred responsibility to not let this moment pass us by and to do something significant with it.

Mayor Maddox has raised the possibility of adding public safety fees, in addition to infrastructure fees, that developers must pay to build mega student complexes. He has recognized that there is a need to “slow” the development of student housing. Public safety concerns were heightened by a recent shooting that occurred at a bar located near the University campus. But it was hardly the only such incident at a student bar in Tuscaloosa that has occurred involving gun violence.

Complicating problems associated with student bars is the widespread practice of many drinking establishments serving liquor to underaged students. Most University students are below the legal age of 21 for alcohol sales. The University, according to College Factual‘s “The University of Alabama Student Age Diversity Breakdown”, has 34.5% of its nearly forty thousand students in the 18-19 age group and 30.9% in the 20-21 age group. There have even been complaints about local minors, aged 14-17, hanging out around college bars at night.

The City of Tuscaloosa instituted a curfew on minors because of such concerns. Individuals below the age of eighteen must be off the street after 10 p.m. on any Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday until 6 a.m. the following day and from 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday until 6 a.m. the following day.

Over 900 University students are under the age of eighteen. The city’s curfew ordinance excludes minors who attend the University. But law enforcement officers are taxed with the task of how to enforce the curfew. Should they stop and question any person who appears to be below the age of eighteen? Many University students who are older than eighteen could certainly be mistaken for being eighteen or younger. Many students who are younger than twenty-one frequent establishments that serve alcohol.

The City of Tuscaloosa is investing a great deal of money in its Elevate program. It also will be issuing bonds to pay for projects. In the $503 million Elevate budget the actual amount allocated for projects is just over $250 million. The mayor has also proposed bond issues totaling $143.5 million for 11 of the largest projects. That will result in $138 million of the $503 million budget being spent not on actual projects but on debt finance charges.

One of the Elevate projects The Saban Center, will create a learning center on the Black Warrior River that brings together the Children’s Hands-On Museum, Tuscaloosa Public Library and Tuscaloosa Children’s Theater. The University’s football coach Nick Saban made a $1.25 million contribution to the project.

To help pay for public safety perhaps the City of Tuscaloosa could do as Chicago has done. Chicago has doubled the tax on food and drink served at restaurants and bars by raising it a quarter-percentage point.

Enforcing underaged drinking laws with electronic ID verification (as Oxford, Mississippi has done) may well reduce the popularity of the establishments located near the University that routinely serve minors. Such enforcement would require a good deal of diligence by the police. The city has had a hard time recruiting police officers. Revenue dedicated to public safety could be be used to increase salaries and benefits, in order to attract more people who would be willing to serve in law enforcement and to retain existing officers. The City of Tuscaloosa could also arrange with the University of Alabama to have a joint task force to enforce underaged drinking laws.

To truly “elevate” Tuscaloosa and make it a better place to live will require more diligent public safely measures. Investing in law enforcement is at least as important as building wonderful projects such as the Saban Center. Such measures may reduce the tensions that exist between the citizens of Tuscaloosa and students at the University. When that happens Tuscaloosa can be proud of being, at least in part, A One Elephant Town.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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When Pigs Fly!

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It seems that every time Tuscaloosa’s Mayor Maddox has said anything since 2017 he has bemoaned Tuscaloosa’s loss of sales tax revenues because of online sales. He said that sales taxes had increased but not at a rate commensurate with population growth. In spite of that he had justified spending increases in the 2019 budget because there were “steady increases in property tax revenues” that offset the decline in sales tax revenues.

In January 2019, he proposed a one cent sales tax increase that would generate $250 million to move Tuscaloosa from a retail economy to an “experience-based, technology-driven city.” He called his plan Elevate Tuscaloosa.

In March 2019 the Council voted down the sales tax increase which would have raised the inflated figure of $500 million for Elevate Tuscaloosa over the next ten years. By April the Council voted to reconsider the tax increase, providing that the state approved its request to exempt grocery items from sales taxes. After the state failed to approve the grocery tax reduction, the Council, with a divided vote, in July approved the sales tax increase anyway. Maddox claimed that a reduction in garbage tax fees would compensate for people having to pay more for groceries.

In June the Elevate Tuscaloosa Advisory Council first met. Maddox told its members, “You are where the rubber meets the road.” On many occasions since that first meeting Maddox has said that the Council did not serve as a “rubber stamp” for the city. However when the Advisory Council first voted unanimously in August on its subcommittee’s recommendations its members did not have a synopsis of the subcommittees’ deliberations.

At that first meeting in June of the Advisory Council, Co-chair State Representative Chris England said that he considered himself a pig not a chicken. He said that when eggs and bacon are served for breakfast, it was the result of a pig being “committed” and the chicken merely being “involved.” Another member immediately said that he too was “honored to be a pig.” The members of the Advisory Council all seem to be very committed to Elevate Tuscaloosa.

When Mayor Maddox pitched Elevate Tuscaloosa, he emphasized projects that involved education, parks and recreation and support of an “experience-based” economy. But, according to a knowledgeable source, in the $503 million Elevate budget the actual amount allocated for these sorts of projects is just over $250 million. The mayor has also proposed bond issues totaling $143.5 million for 11 of the largest projects.  That will result in $138 million of the $503 million budget being spent not on actual projects but on debt finance charges.  There is also another $65 million in the Elevate Tuscaloosa Fund and Operations and Maintenance expenses that would have previously come out of the General Fund.

One of those projects involves paving the airport runway at a cost of about $14 million. The runway is not certified to handle the weight of larger aircraft, such as the 737s that are used to transport the University of Alabama’s football team. A waiver is required from the airline charter company to schedule those flights. One of the charter companies involved has purportedly told airport management that it will no longer grant such waivers. Upgrading the 28 year old runway will require not only paving but also reinforcing the runway’s subsurface.

The City has applied for an FAA grant to upgrade the runway but the FAA has not yet approved it. (In September 2019, an FAA grant for $450,000 was awarded, but its purpose was to cover only the design work.) If the full upgrade grant is approved, it will provide 80-90% in matching funds, with the city only making up the balance. If the final work on the runway begins before the grant is approved, which could take over a year to secure, it is unlikely that federal funds will be available retroactively. Maddox has said that he expects the runway work to proceed this year.

At the September 17th meeting of the Council City Projects Committee preliminary design contracts were approved for projects, including the Riverwalk, Bama Theater and Parks and Recreation. Maddox said that the Council had already recommended a large percentage of the projects.

Any costs associated with them are estimates. The final, actual costs won’t be known until the full scope of the projects are known. Upon completion those contracted will receive a percentage of the construction costs.

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On September 24th the City Council approved its combined $235.9 million fiscal 2019 budget. It also passed the first two resolutions that allocated money to Elevate projects. One authorized a funding agreement for $500,000 with PARA for Phase I of the All Inclusive Playground. The other authorized a payment of $18,000 for a transit study. The money which came from the General Fund will be reimbursed from Elevate funds when they become available.

Elevate Tuscaloosa has been criticized as only being a scheme to pay for the costs of projects which could not be funded by the General Fund. The sales tax increase to fund Elevate Tuscaloosa was not welcomed by many taxpayers in Tuscaloosa. It was only imposed after the Council had at first rejected it. Then, it was approved by a split Council vote. Since it will be necessary for the city to issue bonds to pay for many Elevate projects, a significant amount of the additional sales tax revenue will be used to defray the financial costs of the bonds.

As one person who has also followed the history of Elevate Tuscaloosa put it: “The mayor advocated for the new sales tax using an argument that the revenue would be a new, unique source of revenue available for projects now out of reach with current revenues (Elevate projects), but is now being used to supplement routine activities that should be funded from the general fund.  Additionally, by borrowing future revenues to pay for projects now with revenues that will be collected over the next decade or so, we are incurring additional costs for interest on debt.”

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District 4 & the Machine

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Since 1997 twenty year olds have run successfully for the Tuscaloosa City Council District Four seat, mostly unopposed. They have all been thought to have been associated with the University of Alabama’s Machine in some way.

According to the Business Insider exposé written by Peter Jacobs in 2013:

The Machine’s influence is not just limited to the UA campus. The New York Times reported last month that a losing candidate for the Tuscaloosa City Board of Education filed a lawsuit after a SGA president and Machine candidate was elected on a wave of Greek voting.

UA sorority members were offered free drinks and limo rides if they voted in the City Board of Education elections, according to an email sent out to at least one sorority. Members were encouraged to vote for former SGA president Cason Kirby and fellow UA alumnus Lee Garrison, both of whom ended up winning their respective district.

Local news reported that some Greeks listed their fraternity house as their residence to vote in Kirby’s district, even though they no longer lived there.

 In 2013 WVUA also reported: “More than 10 unrelated people are registered to vote in a single house, and if some residents are not residing there, they could be guilty of perjury.”

In 1997 Lee Garrison was the first student elected as a District Four Council member. A December 28, 1997 Tuscaloosa News article “Election Contested” described the election challenge that Garrison’s opponent filed:

What is a resident? That has become the central issue that could decide whether Councilman Lee Garrison retains the Tuscaloosa City Council District 4 seat he won by 84 votes in the August election. Opponent Don Brown contested the election claiming Garrison benefited from the illegal votes, largely cast by students who don’t need residency requirements.

A University of Alabama senior and former Inter-fraternity Council President, Garrison and his forces registered hundreds of college students to vote. One of the issues became whether students or permanent residents could control the district election. 

While Brown’s forces did not challenge enough votes to make up the difference in Garrison’s margin of victory, his attorneys have been successful in putting voters, mostly students, on the witness stand. They were questioned about where they consider their primary residence and some were required to reveal who they voted for.  

Virtually nonexistent residency requirements leave the outcome completely in doubt. Should circuit Judge Bernard Harwood overturn Garrisons victory, a lengthy appeal is expected.

Garrison’s victory was not overturned. He went on to serve four terms on the Council until he successfully ran for the local school board Chair in 2013.

He was followed in the District Four Council seat by Matt Calderone, who had been the President of the University of Alabama’s Student Government Association (SGA) in 2012. Calderone had no challenger in the election.

There has been a record of SGA Presidents being  members of fraternities affiliated with The Machine. Calderone belonged to Sigma Nu. Due to the highly secretive nature of The Machine, what Greek organizations are members of The Machine cannot be verified.

The students who were registered to vote in a single house in University Circle in 2013 were all reportedly Sigma Nu members.

Calderone in 2019 announced that he would step down from his position as Council member for District Four. In the specially called election for the position there were initially three candidates. Lee Busby was a retired Marine infantry officer. John Earl was a retired photographer. And thirty-seven year-old Craig Williams owned the downtown restaurants Central Mesa and the Avenue Pub.

At a meeting of the Original City Association Williams said that he had never been in a fraternity at the University of Alabama and was not part of The Machine. He also said that he knew Calderone well and had been encouraged by him to run. It seemed as if there would be no “Machine candidate” for the first time in over twenty years.

Then Williams dropped out of the race, citing his commitment to his family, business and employees. On the same day that Williams withdrew his candidacy Frank Fleming entered the race. Jason Morton in the Tuscaloosa News reported:

Fleming’s announcement came within hours of Craig Williams, owner of The Avenue Pub and Central Mesa, saying Monday that he was exiting the race over “unforeseen circumstances.”

Fleming said this was a deciding factor in his joining the race.

“I’ve been thinking about it for a while pretty seriously,” Fleming said. “I was actually really close with Matt Calderone and saw the hard work he did and I want to just build on that.”

Fleming, 28, joins Lee Busby, 62, and John Earl, 72, in vying for the District 4 seat that represents the University of Alabama campus, the neighboring historic districts and parts of downtown Tuscaloosa.

Sidney Frank Fleming was sometimes known as Sidney at the University of Alabama. He was a fellow member of Sigma Nu along with Calderone. He had registered to vote in 2013 but didn’t cast a ballot. Many of his frat brothers of course who did vote were part of a court case.

The case which was ultimately heard by the Alabama Supreme Court dealt with what would constitute a “domicile.” The legal requirements to be considered a resident involved such things as where people register their cars, where they file taxes, where their grades are sent, etc.  Student residency doesn’t just mean living in a place for 30 days, but is supposed to involve the long-term intent of residents. Enforcement of such requirements is another thing entirely.

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Merely having been in a fraternity at the University that was associated with The Machine certainly doesn’t mean that Sidney is this year’s version of a “Machine candidate” running for the District Four seat.

During Garrison’s time serving on the Council, District Four was redrawn to exclude neighborhoods that had traditionally been occupied by permanent residents.

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The redrawing of the district map made the student vote even more significant.

Many students at the University don’t care about voting. The bloc of voters orchestrated by The Machine has been the deciding factor in elections.

Will the 2019 City Council election be a repeat of the School Board election in 2013?

The District 4 polling place was swamped by students, many of whom were wearing tee-shirts commemorating the Greek Fest, the Old Row or displaying other Greek themes. They came from Tennessee, Oregon, Georgia, California and other states to vote for candidates who were running in a local school board race in Alabama. The students more than likely were required to return to their Houses wearing the “I voted” stickers that they were given after voting. One person sympathetic to Horwitz said that she wished she could have stood outside the polling place with a roll of stickers and handed them out to students to save them the trouble of casting ballots.

According to a poll worker some students were so unfamiliar with the voting process that, once they were checked off the list of registered voters, they forgot to pick up their ballots. Others left their drivers license, which many had used as an ID, on the tables where they marked their ballot. Some showed up not knowing if they were registered in Tuscaloosa or in another city. There were an unusually large number of “provisional ballots” cast due to uncertainties about voter eligibility.

That’s not likely. But will another twenty year old be elected to the District Four seat with a little help from his friends, some of whom may be students who belong to fraternities associated with The Machine?

 

 

 

 

 

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Teens Drinking in the Movies & TV

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Cristel Antonia Russell (American University Kogod School of Business) has written an intriguing article about the prevalence of teenagers drinking in movies and television. In her article From ‘Pretty Little Liars’ to ‘The OC,’ television producers need to stop encouraging teen drinking – here’s how they can Russell writes, “you don’t have to look hard to find 16-year-olds sneaking a drink from a flask or getting drunk at a party.”

She explained this phenomena:

The majority of TV shows teens watch depict characters drinking alcohol, often heavily, with few negative consequences. Sometimes, alcohol brands that appear are placed there purposefully by alcohol companies.

Alcohol companies are prohibited from advertising their products to teenagers on billboard near schools or buying commercial time during programs in which the majority of the audience is under 21. But there isn’t an explicit ban on paying to have their brand appear in a television show. This practice is called product placement.

In the United States, alcohol promotion is largely regulated through voluntary industry marketing codes. These codes forbid alcohol advertising in media, including digital media, where 28% of the projected audience is under 21.

In the absence of independent oversight, alcohol companies have long realized that product placement provides a relatively easy way to get around these regulations, to the increasing worry of consumer advocates.

Alcohol is one of the most actively placed product categories in Hollywood TV programs and movies. The growth of product placement consistently outpaces that of traditional advertising.

She produced trial programs that were funded by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Some of the episodes which included teen drinking had epilogues that featured the main character correcting the pro-drinking message in the story.

Half the participants saw the epilogue in which a main character talked directly to the camera to say: “What you see on TV is not real. You do not need to drink to look cool and fit in.” The other half saw the episode without an epilogue.

Though viewers who were immersed in the pro-alcohol story line reported more favorable attitudes toward drinkers and higher drinking intentions following the episode, we also found a hopeful outcome.

The epilogue was able to correct this influence, but only for viewers who were aware that they were being persuaded to buy a product. In other words, the epilogue had the most corrective power for those viewers who were both transported by the story and recognized someone was selling them something.

Is there any wonder that under-aged drinking is so prevalent at schools such as the University of Alabama, which has a strict policy about alcohol use? Just as the producers of mass entertainment profit from the promotion of under-aged drinking, the providers of alcohol in Tuscaloosa also find the temptation of “easy money” hard to resist.

The legacy of the 1978 movie Animal House has been eclipsed by the ubiquitous depiction of teen drinkers in popular media. Perhaps that is why the idea of free limo rides and booze for students that voted in the Tuscaloosa school board election in 2013 didn’t seem so far fetched?

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Making Anti-drinking Rules Stick

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Colleges Have Anti-Drinking Rules on the Books, but Which Ones Actually Work?” The conclusions of the study include:

Among strategies that work best, the researchers say, are prohibiting alcohol in public places on the campus (including sports arenas) and at student-organization recruitment events, as well as banning tailgating, drinking games, and alcohol delivery to the campus. Rules like that, the report’s authors say, not only restrict alcohol consumption but also are “likely to influence social norms around drinking.” Banning drinking at events like recruiting events in the fall “sets the normative tone for the school year.”

Also important, the study suggests: Make sure students know exactly what consequences will follow which infractions. And make sure they know that if they’re cited or arrested off campus by the local police, the college will be notified.

Penalties deemed to work best have a “strong, population-wide deterrent effect,” the report says. Those include “student-organization probation and loss of student-organization status.”

Less effective, but still useful as part of a “ ‘package’ of graduated sanctions,” are suspension and probation. “Because of their severity and the extended deliberative process often required to enforce them,” they “become less swift and certain.”

The University of Alabama’s alcohol policy, if strictly enforced, would certainly curtail illegal, under-aged drinking on campus.

Kafka’s article continues:

For students to heed colleges’ alcohol rules, they have to be able to find and understand them. That’s a problem. Alcohol policies for colleges in the Maryland group could generally be found by students within 30 seconds, although the rules were spread out across multiple locations instead of just one web page.

But colleges need to simplify the language in those policies. Even the clearest rules, the study found, “would be considered difficult, confusing, and best understood by someone with at least some college education.”

He points out that the success of enforcement strategies was “deemed beyond the scope of this study.”

This nationwide problem will only be successfully dealt with when individual educational institutions begin to access how they are enforcing their own policies. Alabama’s Capstone of higher education has an opportunity to be a vanguard by enforcing its own policies.

 

 

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