Ordered to Stay at Home or Free to Wander? It Depends on Where you Live.

Exercise is one of the exemptions to all the COVID-19 closing and shelter-in-place orders. (Source: Tom Gordon)

While a few municipalities — Birmingham and Tuscaloosa, in particular — have felt the need to institute stay-at-home orders with the force of law to slow the rate of coronavirus infections, most cities have taken a less restrictive approach.

Some are suggesting that residents stay home. Others are saying only that they’re following the lead of the state and Jefferson County authorities.

All of Alabama fell under an order closing non-essential businesses as of 5 p.m. Saturday. The Jefferson County Department of Health was the first entity to start strongly recommending people curtail their activities and almost two weeks ago issued an order closing all non-essential businesses and services, an order that was lifted when the statewide order took effect.

But whether you’re required to abide by more restrictive measures depends on where you live. Birmingham and Tuscaloosa both issued 24-hour curfews, with exceptions such as for grocery shopping and picking food up from a restaurant, visiting doctors and exercising. Still, those activities are allowed only if you can maintain social distancing of 6 feet.

Montgomery also has instituted a curfew from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m., in an effort to cut down on social gatherings.

But most cities haven’t taken the issue further that the state order does.

In Hoover, Mayor Frank V. Brocato issued a statement March 24 that urged residents to follow closure orders and “use common sense as it relates to their health, safety and protection against the COVID-19 virus.”

“There are many sacrifices being made and it is incumbent upon us to follow those orders so our community can return to normal,” the mayor said in the statement. “At this time, the City of Hoover has no plans to enact a shelter in place ordinance, but we do urge everyone to continue with all precautions including social distancing and limitation of activities outside your home.”

Mountain Brook Mayor Stewart H. Welch expressed admiration for Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin, calling him “a world-class leader who has the courage to make tough decisions that are in the best interest of his community.”

But the wealthy suburb chose a different route. “We are following the directive issued by (Jefferson County health officer) Dr. Mark Wilson … which recommends people stay at home; avoid congregating in groups (even small groups) and maintain the appropriate social distancing (6 feet),” Welch said in a statement released to BirminghamWatch. “We are encouraging folks to enjoy the fresh air by taking a walk, run or cycling outdoors … while continuing to observe appropriate social distancing. Our 45 miles of sidewalks and walking trails provides ample room for people to spread out and we have noticed a significant increase in the number of people taking advantage of the outdoors … while observing social distancing.

“Our residents are taking the COVID-19 very seriously and we have not seen violations to these recommended protocols so I do not anticipate that we will issue an order/mandate to shelter at home,” Welch said.

Bessemer Mayor Kenneth Gulley did go a step further, urging residents of Bessemer to shelter in place but stopping short of issuing an order or calling a curfew.

“We’re doing our part to keep you safe, but we need your help. We’re asking all Bessemer residents to shelter-in-place when allowable during this time as we all work together to halt the spread of this virus in our state and nation,” Gulley said.

Homewood Mayor Scott McBrayer also urged residents in a video statement to stay at home – but not with an ordinance. “Let’s beat COVID-19 together and stay at home,” McBrayer said. “Thank you for caring enough about yourself, your family, your friends and our community to make a sacrifice for the benefit of all. Think of it like this: you staying at home could save someone else’s life.”

In Vestavia Hills, officials struck a similar tone. “According to disease control experts, the ONLY way we can prevent or slow the spread of COVID-19 is with your help … and that means avoiding exposure to people outside of your household,” the city’s website states. “Therefore, Mayor Ashley Curry, along with the entire Council, are urging you to stay at home as much as possible and to avoid physical social contact with friends, family and strangers. This especially applies to your children, who may unknowingly be carriers of COVID-19.”

Trussville Mayor Buddy Choat provided a statement on his Facebook page in response to Birmingham’s decision to order residents to shelter in place. “Birmingham’s decision to pass a ‘shelter in place’ ordinance does not affect Trussville residents or businesses. We will continue to work alongside the Jefferson County Health Department and State Health Department officials as to their orders and recommendations,” Choat wrote.

“I have no plans at this time to ask the city council to consider a ‘shelter in place’ ordinance. I do however appreciate everyone’s efforts and understanding of the situation that we are facing. Let’s all continue to do our part in the battle to end this crisis sooner than later. Remember to support our local businesses as they too are fighting a difficult battle.”

In Shelby County, the municipal reaction has been largely similar.

Pelham, for instance, has not issued a stay at home order per se; city officials are encouraging people to practice social distancing. “I can tell by the low volume of traffic on the highway that many of you are making a genuine effort to stay at home,” Mayor Gary C. Waters said in a statement on the city website. “During this time of ‘Social Distancing’ the safest place for you to be is at home. If you will stay at home, wash your hands and check on your neighbors, we will get through this thing.”

Sam Prickett contributed to this report.