Lt. Gov. Will Ainsworth released a plan to incrementally reopen Alabama’s economy today, using a timeline of between “immediately” and May 15, but Gov. Kay Ivey released a statement indicating her decision to review and implement the guidelines could take much longer.
The 157-page report by Ainsworth’s Small Business Emergency Task Force provides guidance and recommendations for small businesses that were deemed “non-essential” by Gov. Ivey last month and closed via a state health order as the COVID-19 pandemic escalated. Today, Ainsworth said social distancing and other health practices have resulted in lower projections of the pandemic’s effects in Alabama and if the report’s recommendations are followed, most businesses and destinations can be reopened safely within the next month.
However, Ainsworth did note the plan would have to be implemented alongside continued testing for the virus, but he did not mention whether businesses could be closed again if cases spike after reopening.
The report warns the state’s general fund budget could see a $400 million “major loss” in tax revenue, while the Education Trust Fund stands to take a $1.3 billion hit “if income and sales tax drop by 20 percent.”
“A decline of this magnitude would have a detrimental impact on Alabama’s current and future workforce, economy, public health and education system,” it reads.
Ainsworth noted the Small Business Administration’s $350 billion Paycheck Protection Program has already been exhausted of funds, unemployment claims are at “an all time high” and small businesses have been put at an unfair disadvantage compared to big-box stores during the pandemic, “but our committee believes there is a way to safely reopen the Alabama economy and get people working responsibly.”
The report suggests beaches can be reopened as soon as May 1, so long as social distancing can be enforced, the size of the groups on the beach are restricted to 10 or fewer and beach activities are limited to general recreation such as swimming, sunbathing, walking or running and fishing.
Restaurants — not bars — can reopen immediately if they commit to “limiting any interaction between employees and customers, as well as customers with other customers,” while also frequently sanitizing common surfaces. Ainsworth said table groups would be limited to six people and tables must be at least six feet apart.
Retail stores can reopen immediately, provided they impose the same 50-percent capacity restrictions as big box stores. Employees’ use of personal protective equipment (PPE), such as masks and gloves, is recommended but not required and retailers should provide hand sanitizer and warning signs for patrons who enter.
“Close contact services” such as hair salons, barber shops, nail salons, tanning and waxing salons and tattoo parlors can reopen immediately but employees must wear PPE, appointments must be made, customers inside the store at one time must be limited and no one can wait in waiting areas.
Childcare facilities can reopen immediately provided they follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines, and limit the number of children to 11 or fewer.
The report also provides guidelines for health care services, agriculture, manufacturing, sporting events, entertainment venues, gyms and other industries and businesses, and may include such measures as taking employees’ temperatures, limiting contact between employees and customers and limiting cash transactions.
In a statement this morning, Gov. Kay Ivey acknowledged she’d accepted the report and had already forwarded it to her Executive Committee of the Coronavirus Task Force. The ultimate decision will be made by both Ivey and State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris.
“I know they will begin looking at these suggestions and start plugging them in, where appropriate, as we weigh all our options about opening up the economy,” she said. “On a call with the president and vice president yesterday, President Trump made it clear that this will be a gradual process, even as he said that our nation’s governors will be responsible for leading these efforts and that his Administration will continue to stand by us as we do this.
“Consistent with what we’ve been saying all along, the president made it clear that the return to ‘normal’ won’t be a quick or simple process. We will need to see declining cases – and stronger testing – over at least 14-days – to make certain we don’t see a return in the spike up of the infection.
“In addition to the report from the Small Business Commission, I also look forward to receiving reports from our seven members of Congress by the middle of next week. We’re also getting feedback from the mayors of our 10 largest cities – as well as a lot of other good suggestions – and our Executive Committee is already looking into many different ideas and plans. No good idea will be tossed aside, but even as we look at every way we can to reopen the economy, we’re going to need to continue to maintain social distancing and other health measures to ensure the virus doesn’t flare up again.
“Again, I appreciate the work of the lt. governor and this Commission, and I’m very grateful so many Alabamians have rallied behind our efforts to keep people safe. Because of the efforts of the people of Alabama, I am confident we have saved lives, which will help us immeasurably as we strive to get Alabama back to work.”
On Friday, Ainsworth said the key to reopening the state safely would be to increase the availability of COVID-19 testing and the Alabama Department of Public Health’s ability to perform more contact tracing in order to test those who came into contact with a positive COVID-19 case.
The federal government has also already indicated it will be up to the states to provide testing and monitor future outbreaks. Earlier this week, State Health Officer Scott Harris said ADPH was taking steps to get there but seemed to imply there was still work to be done.
“We know we’ll continue to see cases and we’re working hard to make sure we can test everyone who needs to be tested as quickly as possible,” Harris said. “We also need to be sure we can do adequate contact tracing and we’re already shifting employees from all parts of the agency into that. We’ve quadrupled the number of people we have doing contract tracing and plan to add more as we can get them trained.”
According to Harris, there is regular testing occurring in 57 of Alabama’s 67 counties, though not all counties have the supplies to perform tests every day. Ivey said Wednesday the state is working to set up new testing facilities and announced drive-thru facilities activated in Adamsville and Montgomery supported by partnerships with Walmart and Quest Diagnostics.
Data collected by ADPH indicates that, since March 13, nearly 40,000 Alabamians have been tested for COVID-19 using the nasopharyngeal swabs tests that can confirm whether someone is actively infected with the disease in around 24 hours. The true number of tests performed is likely higher because ADPH has not initially collected information on negative tests results.
There’s also been an unknown number of “antibody” tests performed, which can identify the antibodies a patient’s body produces to fight a COVID-19 infection. The city of Mobile has conducted hundreds of these tests on employees and local first responders in the surrounding areas but they require follow-up testing in order to confirm an active case.
As Ivey noted, the recommendations in the Small Business Commission’s report came a day after President Donald Trump unveiled guidance for governors around the country on how to best ease public health restrictions that have limited economic activity and public movement.
Despite initially claiming he had “total authority” to order states to rescind health orders they implemented themselves, Trump later walked back those comments and reportedly told governors in a conference call Thursday they would “call the shots” in their respective states.
Like Alabama, many other states have already begun drafting plans for how they might return to normal economic activity and some have created multi-state consortiums to implement phased reopenings across their region.
Earlier this week, Ivey said there had been no discussion of creating or joining a consortium of other Southern governors but said she was open to the idea of sharing information and best practices with neighboring states.
The “Opening Up America Again” guidelines the White House released were broken down into three phases that would gradually permit more activity as regional outbreaks of COVID-19 were brought under control. The first two phases continue to recommend restrictions on some economic and recreational activity and the third would remove all restrictions.
Under the guidance, one of the benchmarks that could indicate whether a state is prepared to move into a phased reopening is a sustained “decrease in reported cases” and a “decrease reports of influenza-like illnesses” over a 14-day period. Other factors were also included.
It also says that states proceeding into a gradual reopening of their economies should have already established a “robust testing program for at-risk healthcare workers, including emerging antibody testing.” You can read a full breakdown of “Opening Up America Again” below:
Jason Johnson contributed to this report.