Shut It Down: Jefferson County Officials Close the Doors of Bars and Restaurants, Make Gatherings of 25 People or More Illegal

Dr. Mark E. Wilson, chief medical officer of Jefferson County, in a COVID-19 press conference 3-16-20. (Source: Solomon Crenshaw Jr.)

The chief medical officer of Jefferson County laid down the law this evening in the war against the coronavirus, ordering “drastic efforts” to avoid contact with people who might have the disease.

Beginning Tuesday and until further notice, all gatherings of 25 people or more are prohibited countywide.

All Jefferson County bars, breweries and restaurants are to prohibit in-person dining and drinking for one week. That policy will be reevaluated at that time. They may, however, offer delivery and curbside take-out.

Also, all senior centers, nursing homes and other long-term care facilities must be closed to visitors.

Dr. Mark E. Wilson said authorities are aware of 17 confirmed cases of the coronavirus in Jefferson County. Based on initial disease investigation, he said officials believe there is community spread of the virus within Jefferson County, not just spread from contact with people who have been out of the country. Across Alabama, the state Health Department is reporting 29 confirmed cases of the disease — three in Tuscaloosa County; three in Shelby County; two in Montgomery County; and one each in Baldwin, Elmore, Lee and Limestone, in addition to the Jefferson cases. .

“The number 17 we are certain is a major under-representation of what is actually going on in our community,” he said. “We believe there are many, many more cases that we have not detected.

“The number of cases are likely to double approximately every two days if we do not take swift and very deliberate action to try to slow the spread and stop the spread,” Wilson continued, “and give our public health officials and all of our partners time to get this under control.”

Wilson announced during a press conference outside the Jefferson County Department of Health that the following policies would be in effect and unenforceable under the law beginning Tuesday:

  • All gatherings of 25 persons or more, or gatherings of any size that cannot maintain a consistent 6-foot distance between persons, are prohibited until further notice.
  • All senior citizen centers are closed. Such centers and their partners are urged to assure that their clients continue to receive needed meals via curbside pick-up or delivery.
  • Visitation at all nursing home long-term care facilities in Jefferson County is prohibited for all visitors and non-essential persons except for certain compassionate care situations, such as end of life.
  • For one week, there is no on-premise dining or drinking at any restaurant, bar, brewery or establishment that offers food or drink. This order will be reevaluated on March 24. Pick up and delivery are allowed.
  • Effective Thursday, all private schools grades through 12th and preschools and child care centers with 12 or more children are ordered to close. Before April 6, a decision will be made about possibly extending those closures.

The order prohibiting 25 persons applies to all gatherings, which could include community, civic, public, leisure, exercise, faith-based and sporting events with spectators, along with concerts, conventions, fundraisers, parades, fairs, festivals or any similar event or activity that brings 25 or more persons in a single room or single space at the same time.

Wilson said the order restricting assemblies can be enforced by court order, adding that the county and cities that have declared emergencies can take enforcement actions.

Jefferson County Sheriff Mark Pettway said the job of his deputies is to be present everywhere possible.

“We’re not looking to go in and disrupt anybody’s service,” he said, “but we’re going to be present and have a presence everywhere that we can.”

Deputy Chief David Agee said he expects residents will comply fully.

“We’re all in this together, all the citizens working together,” he said.

Establishments serving food and beverages may continue to offer food for take-out or delivery, provided they maintain a consistent 6-foot distance between persons. These establishments are “strongly encouraged” to offer online ordering and curbside pick-up of food.

Wilson noted that the health department has staffers who inspect restaurants and day cares to help regulate those businesses. “They’re going to be making their rounds just to check on people and these sites to make sure they understand these orders and they’re complying with them,” he said.

Hospital food service areas are excluded from the food service order, provided they have their own social distance plan.

Wilson acknowledged that the orders given today were produced rapidly with a lot of input as the circumstance have changed, requiring continual alteration.

“There may be little gaps or questions that come about,” he said. “What about this? What about that? We can address those as we go along but we needed to get this out now in order to stop the bleeding.”

Midfield Mayor Gary Richardson attended the press conference as a member of the Jefferson County Mayor’s Association. He said the coronavirus was everyone’s problem.

Drew Langloh, president and CEO of United Way of Central Alabama, announced that a hotline has been established by which live operators will field questions about the virus. Residents can call 211 for information.

Others Also Restricting Access

The state has not imposed regulations as strict as those in Jefferson County, which, in addition to having an urban population base, also has grown into a bar and restaurant destination city in recent years.

Nursing homes and assisted living centers across the state also have been closed to visitors, and many offices and courts for the state, counties and cities are closing to visitors. But so far it is not a crime to gather in groups in other parts of the state.

New York, New Jersey and Connecticut also shut down bars and restaurants except for take-out or delivery today along with imposing a curfew, which has not happened here.

The Trump administration released new guidelines Monday that asks people to avoid crowds of more than 10 people, as well as recommending steps that are being taken in Jefferson County.

And in the California Bay Area, six counties announced residents should not go out for three weeks except to meet “essential needs.”

Nationally the CDC at noon Monday reported more than 3,400 cases and 68 deaths across the country.