Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey on Wednesday extended her mandatory mask order for five more weeks, until at least Nov. 8.
The governor said at a news conference that she picked the date specifically because it is after the presidential election on Nov. 3.
“It’s important to have a safe environment for our poll workers, poll watchers and those of us who would like to vote in person,”
Ivey said she sympathizes with those who had hoped the mask order would be allowed to expire on Friday as originally scheduled.
“I know that there are many people throughout this state who had hoped that we would follow the lead of some other states to have removed the mask order,” she said. “We’ve heard from a lot of you. And I hear you. But I look to being able to lift the mask order as much as you do, if not more. And hopefully, that can be sooner than later.”
State health leaders has urged Ivey to keep the order in effect. The governor credited it with “real progress” against the novel coronavirus pandemic.
“My friends, this isn’t just coincidence. The fact is our mask order, which we imposed on July 16, is working. And the numbers speak for themselves.”
She added: “I hate to see us pull back too quickly and negate the progress that we’ve made.”
The governor lifted one key restriction – a ban on visits to long-term care facilities. Each resident now will be allowed one caregiver or one visitor at a time.
“I truly recognize it’s been a long, hard year,” she said.
Brandon Farmer, the president and CEO of the Alabama Nursing Home Association, welcomed the change.
“It’s important for nursing home residents and their family members to be able to visit in person and this is another step toward returning life to normal in nursing homes,” he said in a statement. “We are pleased CMS is moving in this direction and thankful Governor Kay Ivey and Dr. Scott Harris amended the state health order to accommodate this change. We are working closely with Governor Ivey’s administration and the Alabama Department of Public Health to help our members understand and implement these guidelines.”
Alabama has had about 150,000 COVID-19 cases since March, including 14,000 in the past 14 days. But Dr. Scott Harris, the state’s health officer, reeled off a slew of encouraging developments. Deaths, which total 2,553, have trended lower in September. The 7.1 percent positive test rate is the lowest its been, and hospitalizations are way down.
“We are now at about half of where we were in late July and early August,” he said.
In addition, Harris said, the state Health Department rates only six states as “red,” for the most critical in terms of recent infections.
Harris said these trends have occurred without adding new restrictions except for a now-rescinded order that bars close early.
“This mask ordinance is working,” he said. “It works, and we have evidence of that.”
Harris pointed to a study in South Carolina, which allows counties to decide whether to requires masks. About 40 percent of those counties have mask orders, and infections have dropped about 15 percent. Meanwhile, in the 60 percent of counties that have not imposed mask mandates, infections have increased by more than 30 percent.
Neither Harris nor Ivey offered any indication as to when masks might not be necessary.
“I don’t think there’s a single magic answer to that,” Harris said.
Updated at 11:26 a.m. with comments from Alabama Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris.
Updated at 11:29 a.m. with comments from the Alabama Nursing Home Association.