Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey extended her mask mandate on Thursday but promised this will be the last time.
When the next Safer at Home order expires April 9, Ivey said in a news conference, residents will be free to use their own judgment on face coverings.
Ivey also further loosened a number of the remaining restrictions that have been in place since last year:
- Hospitals and nursing homes, with “reasonable restrictions” now will be able to allow visits from two caregivers or two visitors at a time. That is up from a limit of one in both cases.
- Senior citizens centers will be able to resume programs other than congregate meals. But those activities must be outdoors and comply with guidelines from the Alabama Department of Senior Services. Meals still will be available only by curbside pickup and delivery.
- Restaurants, bars and breweries now will be able to serve customers without limitations on party sizes at tables. But the governor will continue to require establishments to install partitions to keep at least 6 feet between tables. Additional sanitation rules and guidelines will apply.
- Summer camps will be able to operate under social-distancing and sanitation rules and guidelines. This change mirrors rules already in place in schools.
The governor’s decision on masks strikes a balance between public health officials who have urged the governor to maintain the status quo during the still-potent pandemic and increasingly loud calls by many Republicans to end the mandate.
Ivey’s lieutenant governor, Will Ainsworth, called it a “Big Brother-style” infringement on liberty. The Alabama Senate on Wednesday passed a resolution calling for it to end, and the conservative-leaning Alabama Policy Institute also weighed in again the mask order this week.
Ivey’s decision gives the state five more weeks to ramp up vaccinations. Currently, 637,000 people have received at least one vaccine dose in Alabama, and more than 333,000 more have been fully vaccinated. But that means only about 17 percent of the state’s adult population has received even one shot, let alone two. It also is less than half of the 1.5 million people that Alabama State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris estimates are currently eligible.
Harris said the actual numbers are a bit higher than the numbers reflected on the Alabama Department of Public Health vaccine dashboard. He said about 1.3 million first- and second-doses had been given. He said the state's goal is to administer 150,000 shots per week. That would mean an additional 750,000 people would have at least one dose by April. 9.
In addition, Harris noted, roughly a half-million people have been identified with the novel coronavirus – plus an unknown additional number of people who have had the infection but never got tested. Those people have at least some immunity, he said.
“Taken altogether, that would put us in a pretty good place,” he said.
The governor’s new order comes at a time when Alabama’s seven-day rolling average in new cases has plummeted by about 75 percent from its peak in early December. On Thursday, 559 people were in Alabama hospitals with COVID-19 – the lowest number since June 7.
Ivey called on Alabamians to exercise “personal responsibility” even after the mandate expires. She said businesses have the option to implement their own mask requirements for customers and staff. She said the mask policy has worked.
“There’s no question that wearing mask has been one of the greatest tools in combating the spread of the virus,” she said. “That along with practicing good hygiene and social distancing has us keep more people from getting sick, or wore, dying. … Even when we lift the mask order, I will continue to wear my mask while I’m around others.”
Figures on COVID-19 infections, however, do not show a marked difference among Alabama and some states that do not have statewide mask mandates. The state has a higher per capita infection rate than non-mask Florida and Georgia, for example.
The governor said policies on visitation at nursing homes and restrictions on senior citizens centers were designed to protect vulnerable populations.
“While this has been out of an abundance of caution, an unintended consequence has created loneliness, depression and in some cases, mental and physical decline,” she said.
Brandon Farmer, president and CEO of the Alabama Nursing Home Association, noted that new COVID-19 cases have declined 93 percent from their high point the week of Dec. 20 to the week of Feb. 21.
“The declining cases are a welcome sign, and we hope they point to brighter days ahead,” he said in a statement. “The vaccine roll out has been successful and our member nursing homes continue to follow infection control guidance from the state and federal governments. We think these factors are contributing to the decline in cases.”
Updated at 11:52 a.m. with additional comments from the governor and the president of the Alabama Nursing Home Association.