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As coronavirus rises in Alabama, experts worry over lack of ‘guardrails’ in reopening

Although Americans are trying to move closer to their pre-pandemic routines, there are signs the coronavirus continues to spread in places that have eased restrictions. One of those is Alabama, among the last states to issue a stay-at-home order and the earliest to lift it. John Yang looks at the risks associated with reopening in this report.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Americans are trying to move closer to their pre-pandemic routines, but there are worrying signs that the virus is continuing to spread in some of the states that have eased restrictions.

    John Yang has a look at one of those states, Alabama.

  • John Yang:

    In the Vintage Cafe in Montgomery, Alabama, the hustle and bustle is back.

  • Eric Rivera:

    We have done everything from change flooring, from carpet to hardwoods, changed all of our practices. We are promoting the use of masks.

  • John Yang:

    Cooks have added extra precautions to their normal kitchen routines.

    Eric Rivera is the executive chef.

  • Eric Rivera:

    We wanted to bring all of our staff back in, give them the proper training, get all the new training and procedures in place, before we decided to open back up to the public. We wanted them, again, to feel safe and secure coming into our establishment, and we wanted to feel safe and secure as well.

  • John Yang:

    Business may be on its way back across Alabama, but so are cases of coronavirus, on an upward trend after April 30, the day state officials began easing restrictions.

    In a state where college football is king, it's news that University of Alabama and Auburn University players tested positive this month when they returned to campus for workouts.

    And metropolitan areas, like Montgomery, the state capital, have been hard-hit.

    Mayor Steven Reed, a Democrat:

  • Mayor Steven Reed:

    I think any time you have a 337 percent increase month over month, that's a problem. And that's what we had from the month of April to the month of May. And we also saw almost 80 percent of our deaths that we have reported so far occur in the month of May.

  • John Yang:

    Alabama was among the last states to issue a stay-at-home order, on April 3, and, just four weeks later, among the first to begin easing restrictions.

    Beaches reopened.

  • Elisha Couch:

    We have been stuck in the house so long, so it's like a breather. You know, we needed to get out, so I just thought I'd bring him out here to enjoy the sun and the water.

  • John Yang:

    In-person, though socially distanced, high school graduations were allowed. Church services resumed.

  • Emily Whipple:

    It's just nice to be able to get together with really family and just spend time together and worshipping God.

  • John Yang:

    Governor Kay Ivey, a Republican, announced the plan.

  • Governor Kay Ivey:

    We cannot sustain a delayed way of life as we search for a vaccine. There are many viruses that we live with and have worked necessary precautions into our daily lives. Standing back and letting our businesses collapse, while we have got hundreds of thousands of folks that are hurting and suffering, is not an option.

    Having a life means having a livelihood too.

  • Steven Reed:

    But we can't put the dollars over the data. And I think, unfortunately, that's what we ended up doing at the state level.

    And that, I believe, contributed to some of the increasing numbers that we saw. But, also, I think it just gave people a sense that this pandemic was over and that we had won this battle.

  • John Yang:

    At Alabama's hospitals, though, the battle is far from over.

    Dr. Rachael Lee is an epidemiologist at the University of Alabama-Birmingham.

  • Rachael Lee:

    We are continuing to care for about 50 to 60 patients with COVID every single day.

    So, what that means is that we have one ICU that's completely full of patients that have COVID-19, one acute care unit that's completely full of patients that are being cared for with COVID-19. And every single day, we're having two to three new cases a day being admitted.

  • John Yang:

    Lee says more study is needed to figure out what's behind the current surge, but says a contributing factor is the state of health care in rural Alabama.

  • Rachael Lee:

    If you are in a smaller area, you may have to drive a long distance in order to even get a test. And that test may be delayed because it has to be shipped somewhere else in order to get a result.

    So, you can see how that infection could potentially spread from one person to the next, if it — if there's a delay in getting a diagnosis.

  • John Yang:

    And the current state guidelines, she says, are too lax.

  • Rachael Lee:

    I think what's lacking with some of our recommendations is, you know, that we are open in terms of the amount of people that can be around one another.

    And then, also, there's no real restrictions in terms of mask-wearing inside retail businesses. And I think, without those kind of guardrails up, it is potentially the possibility that you can see this disease spread from person to person.

  • John Yang:

    In Alabama, masks are mandatory for workers at places like hair salons. At Envy Hair Designs in Montgomery, it's required for customers, too.

    Tasha Curry is the owner.

  • Tasha Curry:

    You know, everybody has to wear a mask, and then we're making everybody sanitize as soon as they walk in the door.

    I'm right up on them when I'm cutting their hair and I'm doing their hair. So I just make sure I keep my mask on, and make sure they keep their mask on.

  • John Yang:

    On the streets of Montgomery, Mayor Reed wants to require masks in public, but says a majority of the city council opposes it.

  • Mayor Steven Reed:

    We have to do it because of the surge that we have seen in cases in Montgomery.

    And, more importantly, it is impacting, disproportionately, black people in this city, in a region that has a high number of people with underlying health issues and other illnesses that make them more susceptible to suffering more seriously from COVID-19 virus.

  • John Yang:

    As leaders and health care workers confront this current rise in cases, they worry about what could still be ahead.

  • Rachael Lee:

    If we saw another surge, we would really have to work on thinking through alternative methods to protect our health care workers. I think that's probably the thing that keeps me up at night the most.

  • John Yang:

    And business owners Tasha Curry and Eric Rivera worry, too, for a different reason…

  • Tasha Curry:

    Oh, my gosh. I don't even want to think about having to shut now for another two or three months. We're going to pray and keep our fingers crossed that everything will be OK. And, hopefully, we will make it through again.

  • Eric Rivera:

    That's one of the things you think about every day, is, are they going to close us back down if the cases get too high?

  • John Yang:

    As experts say people in Alabama and across the nation will likely have to face life without a coronavirus vaccine for some time to come.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm John Yang.

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