Alabama is allowing movie theaters, bowling alleys and summer camps to reopen Friday afternoon as Gov. Kay Ivey expands her "Safer at Home" order. The rules, which still require social distancing and sanitation measures, also apply to casinos and bingo halls, along with tourist attractions such as museums, zoos and amusement parks.
The governor is relaxing restrictions on aspects of normal life such as schools and water parks even as Alabama faces a rise in COVID-19 cases — and in some areas, a shortage of hospital beds for coronavirus patients.
"In Alabama, a third of the state's total overall cases have occurred just in the last two weeks," Janae Pierre of NPR member station WBHM reported. Despite the rise, Pierre said, two of Alabama's biggest high schools were holding graduation ceremonies at a baseball stadium this week.
Overall, Alabama's Department of Public Health said, 13,414 of 174,074 coronavirus tests have been positive – a rate of 7.7%. The rate is even lower over the past 14 days when 4,336 tests were positive out of 70,693 – a rate of 6.13%.
But the number of new coronavirus cases in the current week is markedly higher than in the previous one, with more than 1,000 cases in the last three days alone.
Ivey conceded that "our numbers are not as good as we would hope," but she said it's time for Alabama to take another step in reopening its economy while adjusting to the "new normal" of coronavirus precautions. The state must find a balance, she said, between acknowledging the deadly threat of COVID-19 and helping people pursue their livelihoods.
Ivey announced the newly eased rules Thursday, the same day Montgomery Mayor Steven Reed sounded an alarm by saying hospital patients in central Alabama who need to be in intensive care might not be able to find an ICU bed.
"Our health care system has been maxed out," Reed said, adding that patients in his community were being sent to Birmingham. He urged residents not to take "needless risks" and to keep the virus from spreading further.
The amended order will be in effect from 5 p.m. local time Friday through July 3. It increases the number of businesses Alabama allowed to resume operations on May 1, when retail stores received the OK to open at 50% of their occupancy capacity. Restaurants, bars and breweries were also allowed to reopen then, with limited seating and at least 6 feet between tables.
Hundreds of thousands of Alabamians have suffered job losses from the pandemic's effects: Alabama's unemployment rate hit 12.9% in April, the state Department of Labor said.
The jobless rate is even worse in some of its most populous counties, such as Mobile and Montgomery, both at 15.1%, and Tuscaloosa at 16.8%. At least three other counties reported unemployment rates of 20% or more.
"This pandemic has negatively impacted Alabama's economy and in two months' time has managed to undo years of positive progress," Labor Secretary Fitzgerald Washington said as he released the figures Friday. "But the impact to our employers and workers who carry the economy is even greater. So many had life-altering changes that impacted their families almost overnight.
Alabama's leisure and hospitality businesses have been hammered by shutdowns and physical distancing rules due to the coronavirus, losing roughly 80,000 jobs in April.
The April results show 283,787 people lost their jobs that month. Since early March, Alabama has received more than 501,000 jobless claims.