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MASK UP, ALABAMA: New order gets mixed reviews

Alabama will begin requiring face masks in public as health officials try to quell a surge of new coronavirus  cases that is filling up hospitals, Gov. Kay Ivey said Wednesday.

In an announcement made a day after the state reported a pandemic-high of 40 deaths in a single day, officials said masks would be required starting Thursday afternoon for anyone older than 6 who’s in public and within 6 feet (2 meters) of someone who’s not a relative.

The rule, which makes exceptions for people who have certain medical conditions, are exercising, or performing certain types of jobs, will last through July 31, meaning it is set to expire before most public schools reopen. But other health orders have been extended to fight COVID-19, the illness caused by the new virus.

Locally, some leaders are in favor of the order for Alabamians to wear masks in public others aren’t and some aren’t saying.

Goshen Mayor Darren Jordan said the governor is not in an enviable positon.

“Some people will be upset with the order while others will agree with her decision,” Jordan said. “But we are living in a very difficult time and the governor had a difficult decision to make. The governor is doing what she can to enable us to live our lives once again.”

Jordan said the governor is looking at the big picture.

“People are restless; they are tired of hearing about COVID-19,” he said. “The attitude seems to be, I’ll do what I want but, if I do get it, then I can get on with my life.”

But, Jordan said if wearing a mask will help lower coronavirus numbers here in Alabama, then maybe we won’t be looking at this virus over into the fall or even longer.

Brundidge Mayor Isabell Boyd said she agrees with Gov. Ivey’s order 100 percent.

“We need to do what we are being asked to do because it’s in our personal interest as well as in that of those around us,” Boyd said. “We need to be an example to others and we need to be an encourager to those who aren’t wearing masks.”

Boyd said wearing masks will be a learning process just like wearing seatbelts was.

“Sometimes people have to be required to protect themselves,” she said. “Now is that time. I hope people will see the importance of the governor’s order. I pray we can soon get rid of this deadly virus.”

The governor’s order will have an immediate impact on the business community.

Pike County Chamber of Commerce President Dana Sanders said the chamber is encouraging everyone to follow the governor’s order whether or not they agree.

“We want everyone to stay safe and to support our local business while staying safe,” she said. “We have a number of local merchants who are selling masks and we are encouraging everyone to support our local businesses in staying safe.”

Steve Garrett, owner of the Piggly Wiggly stores in Troy, said masks are already available to his employees and he will encourage customers to wear masks while shopping.

“I would say a large number of our customers, 60 to 70 percent, are already wearing masks,” he said. “And, they are staying away from each other. Right now, what we will do is encourage our customers to wear masks. It’s for everybody’s protection.”

The Troy Recreation Department is supporting Gov. Ivey’s mask order 100 percent, said Dan Smith, Troy Parks and Recreation director.  “We will definitely adhere to the governor’s mandate. Everyone who enters the rec center must wear a mask.

Those who are actively involved in baseball, swimming, walking or fitness activities do not have to wear a mask  but they must maintain social distance.”

Smith said each person should do everything possible to protect themselves and others.

Ivey said statistics showing a precipitous rise in confirmed coronavirus cases in Alabama over the past two weeks “just do not lie.”

“We’re almost to the point where our hospital ICUs are overwhelmed,” Ivey told a news conference at the Capitol.

The governor previously pleaded for residents to show “personal responsibility” in fighting the new coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Ivey declined to impose new restrictions as recently as June 30, when she said a statewide mask order would be “next to impossible” to enforce.

Violating the new order can result in a fine of $500 and jail time, Ivey said, although she stressed that protecting residents, not imposing penalties, is the goal.

“We’re pleading with the people of Alabama to wear a mask,” she said. Businesses aren’t required to refuse entry to people not wearing masks, but Ivey says the order allows them to do so as a “reasonable step” for encouraging mask use.

Lt. Gov. Will Ainsworth, a Republican like Ivey, criticized the order as “an overstep that infringes upon the property rights of business owners and the ability of individuals to make their own health decisions.”

But Democratic Sen. Doug Jones said the governor “did the right thing” in mandating masks and listening to health professionals.

The state recorded a record of more than 2,100 new cases on Tuesday, and about a third of all cases have been added in the past two weeks, said Dr. Scott Harris, the state health officer.

“Clearly we have more disease circulating in our community,” he said. Nearly 17% of virus tests are now coming back positive, nearly double from May, statistics posted on the state health department website show.

The pandemic kept getting worse in Alabama as many flouted recommendations for face masks and staying away from others in public. Restaurants, bars, theaters, gyms, sports leagues and churches have all reopened with restrictions, and it’s common to see people without masks in public spaces.

With the state’s caseload increasing by an average of more than 1,500 a day over the past week, hospital officials say fewer than 15% of the state’s intensive care beds are available for new patients, and some hospitals are completely out of room, Harris said.

The state reported 40 deaths on Tuesday, a high that pushed the death toll to more than 1,180. More than 58,200 people have been diagnosed with COVID-19 in Alabama.

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