On March 25, 2020, the Alabama Department of Public Health announced the first death to be officially attributed to the COVID-19 outbreak. Thelma Jenny McDonald, nicknamed “Chicken,” lived in Stevenson, a small town in the northeast part of the state. She died at age 53.
That death came two weeks after March 11, the day many people realized how bad the outbreak had become, as the World Health Organization officially declared a global pandemic. It also was the day the National Basketball Association, the NCAA basketball playoffs and golf’s PGA Tour abruptly shut down after players tested positive for what was still called the Wuhan virus, so dubbed for the Chinese city where it was first detected.
Almost a year later, more than 10,000 Alabamians have perished from COVID. The official death toll passed five figures as of Wednesday, with 10,029 fatalities.
The path to 10,000 has been one of slow progressions and fearsome streaks. It took more than three months after McDonald’s passing for the death toll to reach 1,000, but a big spike after the Christmas and New Year’s holidays led to a single week in late January when more than 1,000 deaths were reported. Read more.
The Alabama House passed a bill Tuesday that would ensure some businesses can’t be closed during states of emergency while their competitors remain open.
House Bill 103 by Rep. Jamie Kiel, R-Russellville, would allow businesses and places of worship to remain open as long as they comply with any emergency order, rules or regulations issued by the governor and state or local agencies.
“This bill does away with the connotation of essential and non-essential businesses existing in the state,” Kiel said on the House floor.
Kiel previously told Alabama Daily News that last year in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, he saw local clothing stores and boutiques and sporting goods stores forced to close while other larger stores remained open selling the same products.
“If you’re gonna allow a business that sells T-shirts to stay open, then all businesses that sell T-shirts should be able to stay open,” Kiel previously said. “If one business is allowed to open under certain conditions, then all businesses can be open under those same conditions.” Read more.
More from the Legislature: Special Session, Oversight Bills Advance
An epidemiologist at UAB Medicine thinks that Alabama may be headed toward a long-sought goal in the COVID pandemic and may reach that goal sooner than many had expected.
Dr. Suzanne Judd said in a press conference Wednesday that the state is getting closer to herd immunity, a state where the virus stops its spread because a large part of the population is immune, either through vaccination or by because they have antibodies in their systems because of previous infections — in many cases, infections people didn’t even realize they had.
This year, the city of Birmingham is sending two sets of lobbyists to Montgomery — one from Mayor Randall Woodfin’s office and one from the City Council.
Councilors made that decision last month, claiming they’d been excluded from planning the city’s legislative agenda, and on Tuesday they approved a legislative agenda of their own — one that only slightly overlaps with Woodfin’s priorities.
The primary area of agreement between the two agendas is about bolstering city revenue through fines. Both the mayor and council are pushing legislation that would increase penalties for littering, dumping and weed abatement. Both also want to tie parking tickets to car tag renewal, providing a built-in enforcement mechanism for a ticketing system that currently lacks one.
Woodfin and the council also are both pushing for an increase in the maximum number of entertainment districts allowed in a municipality. Birmingham has four such areas — Pepper Place, Uptown, Five Points South and Avondale — where people are allowed to drink alcohol outside, though they must have purchased that alcohol from a restaurant, bar or venue in that district. State law caps the number of entertainment districts a city can have at five; Woodfin and the council both hope to raise that number to 15.
The similarities mostly end there. Read more.
MONTGOMERY — A new report says that while facing unprecedented impediments due to the pandemic, Alabama has been able to weather a dire employment situation but needs to make gains if it wants to meet an ambitious workforce goal.
According to the Alabama Workforce Council’s 2021 annual report released earlier this month, the state is making progress on Gov. Kay Ivey’s “Strong Start, Strong Finish” initiative to add 500,000 newly credentialed workers to the state’s workforce by 2025.
To reach the Success Plus postsecondary education attainment goal, Alabama must maintain current rates of attainment and significantly increase the number of people who enroll in programs and earn all types of postsecondary credentials, the report says.
If Ivey’s 2025 goal of adding 500,000 highly skilled employees is reached, it would mean that roughly 60% of Alabama’s workforce would hold postsecondary credentials, degrees, and certificates of value. Read more.
More on the topic:
Alabama Innovation Commission Hones Its Focus
Concerned about disparities in vaccine allocation, Birmingham community leaders want officials to increase outreach efforts in Black neighborhoods. Read more.
MONTGOMERY — A bill to require Alabama public school students to attend kindergarten or take an assessment to go directly to first grade received its first vote of approval, passing the House Education Policy Committee Wednesday.
Bill sponsor Rep. Pebblin Warren, D-Tuskegee, said her goal is to offer a complete education to students.
“Pre-K is not available for every child in the state of Alabama, so if there is a child who misses pre-K and kindergarten, that child is not ready for the first grade,” Warren said. “So my whole thing is in support of the student being completely ready to go into the first grade when they get there.” Read more.
Also in the Legislature Thursday
Earlier This Week
Read more on the legislative session.
Alabamians are mourning the death of Sheila Washington, the founder of the Scottsboro Boys Museum and Cultural Center. Washington fought to bring honor and dignity to the nine young Black males falsely accused of rape during the Jim Crow era.
As a child, Washington was fascinated with the story of the Scottsboro boys who ranged in age from 12-19. They were traveling by train through Jackson County when they were accused of raping two women. The 1931 trial drew national attention. An all-white jury in Scottsboro sentenced eight of the nine to death.
Later, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in the case leading to two landmark civil rights precedents regarding the right to counsel and non-discrimination in jury selection.
Gina Moran, a school bus driver and business owner, was set to hold the grand opening for her restaurant, Tamale Queen, on Wednesday. But instead it became more like an early food giveaway for residents impacted by Monday night’s tornado.
“I love my community,” she said. “I’m very heavily involved with Church of the Highlands and they’re involved with us giving out food. And we believe that in times like these, people need help. They need love and they need whatever we can give them.”
Clean up continued Tuesday after a strong tornado devastated parts of Fultondale Monday night. The city has been here before. Residents are, once again, coming together to pick up the pieces Read more.
As a kid growing up in Leeds, NBA great Charles Barkley recalls seeing Bernard Lockhart running through the community. At the time, Lockhart was a star point guard on the Leeds High School basketball team with dreams of going pro.
“You know how hot it is in the middle of summer, but Bernard was running and training all of the time,” Barkley said. “We just wanted to play ball, but Bernard showed us it takes hard work if you want to be great. He had this amazing work ethic.”
Friends and family said Lockhart applied that same ethic in tackling almost every project, especially Magic City Smooth Jazz and its flagship project, Jazz in the Park.
Sometimes, he would get up in the middle of the night to scribble his ideas and sketch plans for the nonprofit arts and entertainment series, said his wife, Jackie Lockhart.
But then in November, the 59-year-old Lockhart was confronted with a challenge he could not overcome — even with his strong determination to survive. Read more.
Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin described the Jan. 6 Capitol insurgency as a time when people “identified themselves as white supremacists,” which he said the country must acknowledge.
“To move the country forward, we have to acknowledge the pain it caused, have accountability and move forward,” he said during a livestreamed interview with Karen Attiah, global opinions editor for the Washington Post.
Montgomery Mayor Steven Reed described the insurrectionists as people who felt they could get close enough to use deadly force. The terrorists exhibited “a level of privilege, entitlement and outright brazenness,” he added.
The two black mayors, whose cities represent the cradle and battlegrounds of the Civil Rights movement from the 1950s to the present day, were interviewed during a Facebook Live event by Karen Attiah, the global opinions editor of the Washington Post, on Friday, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. Read more.
State Officials Cryptic About Plans for New Prison in Rural Bibb County, Including How Water and Sewer Would be Provided
Alabama plans a 3,100-inmate prison in the Brierfield community of Bibb County, but officialdom holds all the cards and the governor isn’t showing her hand.
Even Bibb County administrator Derek Reeves responds to questions about the proposed prison by saying: “I don’t know anything about that. We are not involved with the prison.”
Gov. Kay Ivy has disclosed three general locations for prisons that the state will lease from their private developers. Brierfield, the last general area revealed, has received the coolest reception from the residents of Brierfield Estates, who are leading the opposition.
Big questions loom involving how infrastructure would be provided in the rural area, such as treated water, sewage disposal and access roads.
The precise site of the new prison has not been officially announced. But signs point to it being built at the intersection of A. Arker Road and Brickyard Pass about a mile west of Alabama 139, in the Ashby area.
Such a large prison calls for about 500 acres, and the parcel at that location, which has been cleared to bare earth, fits the description released by the governor’s office. A road potentially suitable for heavy construction vehicles also has been cut into the site. Equipment and activity now at the site are of the type suitable for well drilling or environmental testing.
A source with knowledge of the prison development confirmed that the site is, indeed, the intended location for the prison and that contractors are drilling a well there. Read more.
Birmingham Won’t Defund Police, but Public Safety Plan Includes Training, Social Workers and Civilian Oversight of Complaints
The city of Birmingham said “no” to defunding the police but “yes” to social workers partnering with police, “yes” to improving police training and giving citizens a role in overseeing complaints, and “yes” to better services with which officers and members of the public can interact.
Those are some of the conclusions in the 100-plus-page report Reform and Reimagine Birmingham Public Safety, issued Thursday after a months-long look at how to improve interactions between the city police force and the rest of the community.
Mayor Randall Woodfin and City Council Public Safety Chairman Hunter Williams rolled out the report during a press conference in which they promised more transparency and accountability, enhanced efforts to connect with businesses and the public, and an ongoing commitment to change for stronger relations with constituents. Some of the reforms will go into effect almost immediately. Others may take a year or more, Woodfin said.
The report came from the city’s Public Safety Task Force, which included a former U.S. attorney, a retired detective, an anti-police brutality advocate, a lawyer and the co-founder of Black Lives Matter Birmingham.
Woodfin said the city also will need the assistance of health care providers and citizens to make the reforms work over the long term. Read more.
Richard Shelby was sworn in to the United States House of Representatives in 1979, eight years before he took his current place in the Senate. He was 44 years old at the time, and also a Democrat.
A lot has changed for the Birmingham native since then. Having switched to the Republican Party in 1994 after the GOP’s historic sweep of Congress, Shelby has assumed a great deal of influence in the Senate, now serving as chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee. It’s a position that has helped him steer federal money to the state since he took the gavel two years ago, and it’s a chairmanship that Shelby — and many of his Republican friends back in Alabama — is keen to keep.
But time is not on his side. With two years remaining in his sixth and term, Shelby faces a huge decision: whether or not to run for re-election in 2022, when he would be 88 years old. It’s a decision Shelby has said he will announce sometime in January.
Amazon could be on the verge of its first unionized warehouse in the U.S. If workers at the Alabama facility vote yes next month, they would turn a new page both for the company and the region.
A bill that would delay by three years a provision to require holding back third graders who don’t read at a sufficient level received unanimous support in the Senate Education Policy Committee on Wednesday.
The provision is in the Alabama Literacy Act, which was approved by lawmakers in 2019. It aims to increase reading skills in young students. The act currently requires that, starting at the end of the 2021-2022 school year, third grade students demonstrate specific reading skills before being promoted to fourth grade. Smitherman’s bill delays that retention requirement until the 2024-2025 school year.
He said the delay is needed because the COVID-19 pandemic led to remote learning for many students, and they’re not getting the educational support they need. He also said teachers haven’t been able to get the training they need. Read more.
More from the Legislature This Week:
I no longer ask my classes “When was the last time you read a newspaper?” It’s roughly equivalent to asking “How many of you came to class today in a stagecoach?”
Generation Z gets its news online. That’s one big reason that a growing number of college campus news outlets have reduced the frequency of their print editions, or have abandoned them.
The Auburn Plainsman announced Thursday that its weekly print publications are done. Editor Jack West correctly noted the irony: Most of his readers will read the announcement online.
What’s happening among campus newspapers reflects what’s happening among professional newspapers. Except college publications can’t try to save themselves with paid subscriptions because they place their editions around campus for free reading. The pandemic has severely limited the number of students walking on campus, not to mention the ability to sell advertising, but the larger forces working against print products have been conspiring since before COVID-19.
UAB health experts say when it comes to vaccine variety, more is better. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine is the latest to win approval from the federal government. Read more.
Alabama’s House Republicans Oppose COVID Relief Bill That Passed the House; Senate Takes Up Issue This Week
WASHINGTON — Members of Alabama’s House delegation, except for Democratic Rep. Terri Sewell, voted against the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package that passed the House on a 219-212 vote Saturday.
HR 1319, which the Senate is expected to take up this week, would expand unemployment benefits by $400 per week from March 14 through Aug. 29; deliver payments of $1,400 per person to individuals earning up to $75,000 and couples up to $150,000; raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $15 per hour by 2025; expand Paycheck Protection Program benefits for small businesses and non-profits; establish a $25 billion grant program for the restaurant industry; and increase Affordable Care Act premium subsidies for a large number of the uninsured. See what else is in the relief package.
After a slow start, Alabama’s rollout of the coronavirus vaccine is picking up pace, according to state Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris.
“Alabama as a whole has done a great job,” Harris said during a media call Thursday. “The past five weeks, we’ve given out well over 100,000 vaccines. And last week, even with all of the weather delays, it was our second best week that we have had so far.”
The state has administered more than 800,000 doses. Harris said federal programs are helping to increase supply and reach more residents.
The crisis of a shortage of hospital beds for COVID patients in Alabama is now just a bad memory.
In Birmingham Watch’s periodic analysis of data provided by the Alabama Department of Public Health, the number of beds occupied by those infected with the virus is now less than one-fourth of the peak reached in early January. The agency reported Wednesday that 773 beds held COVID inpatients, down from a high of 3,084 on Jan. 11.
The decline in the number of hospitalized patients is one of the supporting statistics used by Dr. Suzanne Judd, an epidemiologist with UAB Medicine, to forecast that the state may reach herd immunity — a point where so many people were either vaccinated or were producing antibodies to the virus after being infected, that the spread of the virus comes to a virtual halt. She said that could happen by as soon as late summer.
A bill to legalize and regulate medical marijuana passed the Alabama Senate Wednesday, a major step forward in a years-long effort to allow the use of the drug to treat chronic pain and other conditions.
Senate Bill 46 sponsored by Sen. Tim Melson, R-Florence, would allow doctors to prescribe medical marijuana products to treat more than 16 qualifying medical conditions and symptoms listed in the bill, including post-traumatic stress disorder, autism spectrum disorder, Crohn’s disease, HIV/AIDS-related nausea, and cancer-related chronic pain and nausea. An amendment added on the Senate floor by Sen. Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro, added sickle cell anemia to the list of approved conditions.
The bill would create a Medical Cannabis Commission to oversee regulations and licensing for medical marijuana cultivators, processors and dispensaries, and also would require a statewide seed-to-sale tracking system for all cannabis in the state.
UPDATED — Two things have happened recently to put more COVID-19 vaccinations in the Alabama pipeline: a third mass vaccination site opened at Parker High School and the Federal Retail Pharmacy Program began releasing 1 million vaccination doses to drug stores nationwide.
Walmart, Walgreen’s, CVS and Publix are scheduled to receive doses, but not all the stores have received the vaccine. First check with the stores or their web sites to see if they are vaccinating.
The federal program began dispensing doses to 6,500 drug stores nationwide and eventually will increase that to 40,000 stores, according to its website. Read more.
A delay in U.S. Census Bureau data until this fall could mean an odd situation for the state’s elected officials and those who wish to unseat them in 2022. State campaign finance law allows candidates to start fundraising in late May of this year. But the required redrawing of legislative and congressional districts based on the new Census data now won’t be complete likely until late in the year. Read more.
Alabama’s senators voted to acquit former President Donald Trump in his second impeachment trial, both citing the constitutionality of the prosecution.
“The Constitution speaks of removing a sitting president, not a private citizen,” Sen. Richard C. Shelby said in a statement posted to his website and social media.
“I recently voted to dismiss this case based on its questionable constitutionality. The framers were clear in limiting impeachment to the president, vice president, and civil officers of the United States. That is why today, I voted to acquit,” Shelby said.
Sen. Tommy Tuberville also said in a statement that he had concerns about the constitutionality of the trial. “But I had a duty as a juror to listen to the arguments of both sides and keep an open mind, which I did,” he said. “After hearing the arguments presented, I voted to not convict for a number of reasons, including the fact that I don’t think the Senate has the authority to try a private citizen.” Read more.
In 1996, Jerald Sanders, a Black man and resident of Alabama, used his pocket knife to tear a hole in a front porch screen so he could steal a bicycle stored inside.
When apprehended a few weeks later, Sanders was charged with burglary in the first degree, a Class C felony.
Because Sanders had multiple prior offenses on his record, his sentence was pushed to life in prison without parole. A Class C felony often results in a fine or minimal jail time.
Sanders’ story is not rare. Black men are sentenced to prison time that reflects not only the crime for which they are being sentenced, but for their entire criminal history. According to statistics from the Sentencing Project, Blacks are incarcerated at more than five times the rate of whites. Read more.
Alabama’s freshman lawmakers in Washington are stepping into committee roles — and, in one case, into a brand new committee — as most of the state’s veteran lawmakers continue life in the minority party or experience it for the first time in years.
On the Senate side, Republican Sen. Richard C. Shelby has moved from chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee to vice chairman, with Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont assuming the chair.
Sen. Tommy Tuberville, Alabama’s new senator, who has moved into office with a high and controversial profile, has secured spots on the Armed Services; Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry; Health, Education, Labor and Pensions; and Veteran’s Affairs committees.
Among Alabama’s seven House members and two senators, only Rep. Terri Sewell of Birmingham is in the majority party,
Gov. Kay Ivey challenged Alabama lawmakers on Tuesday to be transparent, thoughtful and deliberate as they debate proposals to expand gambling, and said it will be up to voters to make the final decision.
“I look forward to working with the men and women of the House and Senate to give Alabamians an opportunity to decide, once and for all, if a different approach to gambling is in the best interest of our state,” she said during her State of the State address.
“This must be a transparent process,” she said. “And if something does not pass the smell test, I’ll sure let you know.”
The governor said more than 180 gambling bills have been introduced for the legislative session that began Tuesday, but the voice of the people has not been heard.
Gov. Kay Ivey signed lease agreements for two men’s prisons on Monday, part of her plan for three new facilities the state will lease for 30 years at an estimated total cost of about $3 billion.
Construction for the two facilities is expected to begin later this year or the beginning of 2022.
The two lease agreements are with entities of prison builder CoreCivic. They will construct, own and maintain the facilities. It will be the Alabama Department of Corrections that staffs and administers the prisons.
The Birmingham City Council hired its own lobbyist and legal consultant Tuesday, a move granting the council greater independence from the mayor’s office.
The council approved two $45,000 contracts during its virtual meeting — one with lobbying firm Miller Development Group and one with law firm Campbell Partners, LLC. The council cited the opacity of Mayor Randall Woodfin’s legislative agenda and the need for a “council-focused” legal consultant outside of the city’s law department, which reports to the mayor. The Mayor’s Office retains its own lobbyist.
“This council needs help, and we need our own help, because the city’s help is not ours,” said District 3 Councilor Valerie Abbott. “They don’t report to us, they don’t answer to us, they don’t do what we want.” Read more.