Masks will remain mandatory in Birmingham through May 24. The Birmingham City Council voted Tuesday to extend the city’s face covering ordinance, requiring masks in all public places to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Exceptions are made for outdoor exercise and eating or drinking at restaurants or bars. Religious worship services are also exempt, though the ordinance still “strongly encourages” masks in those settings.
The Birmingham City School Schools system also announced Tuesday that masks will be required in schools and all school-related events through the end of the school year to combat the threat from COVID-19.
The city ordinance received the support of Mayor Randall Woodfin and most of the council, with the exception of District 2 Councilor Hunter Williams. Williams argued that the ordinance would make Birmingham an outlier in Jefferson County and the state of Alabama as a whole, placing “undue burden” on local businesses. The state’s mask ordinance is set to expire Friday, and Gov. Kay Ivey has said she will not renew it.
“Obviously, there is a lot of common sense that needs to be used with masks,” he said. “It does seem that we have 32 municipalities in Jefferson County, and having just one have an order where people have to wear masks is not really effective.”
Williams quoted a survey by the Birmingham Business Alliance, which concluded: “‘In order for businesses to survive downtown and begin to thrive again, we need people to come back to downtown. If there are additional restrictions downtown that are not in other parts of the (Birmingham-metro area), people will choose to go other places).’”
Addressing the council, Woodfin rejected Williams’ argument. “The city of Birmingham has always led on the issue of doing what’s necessary from a health crisis standpoint over the last year … . The majority of our citizens in the city of Birmingham have not had access to or taken the vaccination … . People are still dying, people are still being admitted to the hospital, people are still getting the coronavirus.”
“Birmingham does not have the luxury to watch what everybody else is doing because they made wearing masks political,” he added. “The decision we made to save lives may not be popular, but it is the right thing to do, and I know the majority of the people in the city limits of Birmingham support this effort.”
District 5 Councilor Darrell O’Quinn concurred, saying he’d heard from constituents who “really appreciate the fact that the city of Birmingham is an oasis in an otherwise wild-west situation. … Everyone is putting their own concerns and themselves aside and thinking about the community around them and taking on a little inconvenience for themselves and thinking about the safety of others.”
Business owners, managers and supervisors will largely be responsible for enforcing the mask mandate in their places of business. Though the ordinance provides a fine structure for noncompliance — $25 for the first offense, $100 for the second and $250 for the third — Woodfin said Birmingham police would not actively enforce the ordinance unless requested to by a small business owner.
“The only time BPD will engage is if it reaches a point where the employer or the business says this person is either trespassing or has become disorderly,” he said. “The city of Birmingham is not going to go around doing things that are not necessary. We’re just going to practice common sense.”
Williams was the sole vote against the ordinance; it was approved by the council 8-1. The ordinance will be reevaluated on May 18 to determine whether further extensions are necessary.
Jefferson County Health Officer Dr. Mark Wilson could not be reached for comment.
Birmingham school Superintendent Mark Sullivan said he was encouraged that everyone 16 and older is now eligible for the vaccine, and he said more than 1,200 school employees have been vaccinated. But, he said, masks still serve a purpose.
“This is necessary because COVID-19 continues its impact on our community,” Sullivan said. “Although the number of positive cases is decreasing, we must work to stop the spread of the virus.”
Elsewhere in the state, the Montgomery City Council also extended the mask requirement through May 9.