UPDATED: MONTGOMERY — Gov. Kay Ivey on Friday ordered Alabama residents to stay home except for essential needs, imploring citizens to take the new coronavirus seriously and distance themselves from others.
“COVID-19 is an imminent threat to our way of life and you need to understand that we are past urging people to stay at home,” Ivey said during a news conference at the state Capitol. “It is now the law.”
The order requires Alabamians to stay in their places of residence unless traveling to obtain necessary supplies such as food or medicine or going to work if they are part of the “essential workforce.” The order goes into effect Saturday at 5 p.m.
The order marks a new, more aggressive step in the state’s efforts to slow the spread of the coronavirus. As of Friday afternoon, there were more than 1,500 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the state and 21 deaths relating to the virus.
Earlier Friday in Birmingham, the City Council extended the city’s shelter-in-place order through the end of April. It was enacted March 24 and had been set to expire Friday. Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin also announced that the city parks department had restricted the use of parks to solitary activities only.
In a press conference after Ivey’s announcement, Jefferson County Health Officer Dr. Mark Wilson said he is mulling whether the county should take even stronger efforts than Ivey had, though he did not say what those measures might be.
A Change of Mind
Last week, Ivey ordered the closure of all non-essential businesses, but resisted going further to implement a stay-home order as surrounding states did one-by-one this week. That mindset changed Thursday afternoon for two reasons, Ivey said: the significant rise in confirmed infections and cell phone data showing that many Alabamians were traveling around significantly in defiance of requests to stay home.
“The bottom line is folks are just not paying attention,” Ivey said.
Data company Unacast has been tracking cell phone location data during the coronavirus outbreak and updating a “social distancing scoreboard” for states and counties. Alabama currently scores an “F” because data shows that, while residents initially decreased their travel activity in mid-March amid the first shock of the outbreak, that activity ticked back up almost to normal levels in recent days.
Attorney General Steve Marshall warned that state and local police are prepared to fully enforce the public health order, but he said he hopes it won’t have to come to that.
“This is not a time for overly aggressive law enforcement actions, but it’s also not a time for our citizens to brazenly ignore what is being asked of them,” Marshall said.
Anyone caught willfully disobeying the order can be punished with a Class C misdemeanor, which carries a fine of up to $500.
The order also specifies that people can go out to receive government-funded services or benefits, automobile repairs, disability services, services related to education and distance learning and any services needed to maintain a person’s or pet’s health and safety.
The order does say you can attend a religious service as long as the event is a “drive-in” worship service and all participants remain in their cars and do not come within six feet of each other.
Order Focuses on People
While no additional businesses or facilities were closed in the new order, state Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris said that this order is different from the previous state health orders because it applies to the people, not locations.
“This is an order that tells people to stay at home, this is not an order that tells businesses what they can and cannot do, this is an order to all Alabamians that they must remain home except for those essential workers who need to travel included in the order,” Harris said.
The Rev. Cromwell A. Handy of the nearby Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, also spoke during the Capitol news conference, urging people of faith to not attend worship services. Media reports have pointed to the continued congregations of churches around the state as likely points of coronavirus spreading throughout communities.
“If the Lord, which I do know as we stand here today, says stay home for the next few days or the rest of the month, listen to what the Lord is saying to us,” Handy said.
Ivey said the sooner state residents heed the warnings and take the coronavirus seriously, the sooner they can go back to enjoying the things they love.
“Do you want to put your feet on the white sandy beaches down on the Gulf? Do you want to go to the lake?” Ivey asked rhetorically. “If you want to enjoy those things later this summer, we need to take this action today.
“Are you eager for a fall football season coming up? Well what we are doing today gives us a better chance to be able to do that as well.”