Baldwin County braces for "spring break now, Coronavirus later"

Mar 19, 2020

An APR News Feature

EDITOR'S NOTE-- Governor Kay Ivey is ordering all Alabama beaches closed at 5 pm. today. This follows action by The City of Gulf Shores to close its beaches at 7 am tomorrow (Friday) until April 6th. Pat D

While Alabama has 131 (updated) confirmed cases of COVID 19, only one is in the southern part of the state. That case is in Baldwin County. With spring break in full swing and schools closing, thousands of people from around the region are flocking to Alabama’s beaches. That’s raising concerns about new sources of infection. Emergencies and potential disasters are nothing new on the Gulf Coast. Now, residents, business owners, and officials are trying to adapt disaster plans to deal with a new threat.

“The memories of the oil spill come back to us right away,” says Herb Malone, president of Gulf Shores, Orange Beach Tourism. “A different type of crisis, but one of the big common threads it has is we had never had that before. We can handle ourselves in storms, we’ve had a lot of experience with that. The oil spill was brand new to us. This event is also brand new to us and makes the planning and the operations a challenge.”

Spring break is always busy along the Alabama coast. But, for the moment, Malone says the disease is bringing even more people to the beach as schools shut down.

“Our current situation right now, today, is we’re in the middle of spring break. About right now, our data tells us we’re running about 70 percent occupied,” he says. “Everything’s not full, but it’s around 70 percent. Some of that is being added to by the fact that schools, colleges and whatever, rightfully so, have closed and those families can come and do what they do.”

While beaches and condos are crowded, some businesses are already feeling the pinch and difficult times are expected.

“If you have not gotten your business prepared, your restaurant prepared to do take out only you need to start that immediately,” says Donna Watts, president of the South Baldwin Chamber of Commerce.

“We want to be prepared to help business with their business and to help them with their employees,” says Watts. “Because we understand that there will be probably loss of jobs as we move through this, depending on how much business we have to close.”

Tourists spent $4.7 billion, that’s with a b, in Baldwin County last year, making a major impact to the state’s economy. Herb Malone says those numbers mean jobs for a lot of Alabamians.

“The thing I focus most on is all the employees that work for the businesses that serve the guests, that serve the visitors, 53,000 people work in this industry, many of them live in Baldwin County, so we have great concern for them,” he says.

Since the first case of Coronavirus was reported in Bay Minette last Saturday, most county and city buildings in Baldwin County have locked their doors.

“We’ve closed our buildings to public access, but we are still functioning as a government, so we still have everything available that can be done online or through the mail,” says Billie Jo Underwood. She’s chairwoman of the Baldwin County Commission. She realizes that it’s hard not to worry under the circumstances.

“I know we’re in a state right now where everybody is scared to cough, everybody is scared to sneeze,” says Underwood. “We’re more aware of our body functions, just standing here, I want to get my hair out of my face right now and it’s just so difficult, but you guys, we care about you. Call in to the COVID 19 hotline if you have questions about your health.”

The number of COVID 19 cases went from 39 to 46 overnight Tuesday.

“Our case counts are changing as we are detecting more cases in Alabama and this is expected. It is expected we will see more cases,” says Assistant State Health Office Dr. Karen Landers. She says the basic practices being urged, social distancing, washing hands and other precautions are still the best bet for slowing the spread of the disease.

“Right now, with the load of our cases that we have in Alabama, implementing the respiratory hygiene or continuing the hygiene and implementing the social distancing will help us in terms of reducing the transmission of this virus,” says Underwood.

In Baldwin County, Donna Watts says local residents will face the situation with the resolve they’ve used in other emergencies. “Folks, we are in this together, we are Baldwin Countians. We are strong and we are accustomed to recovery and to responding and we’re resilient, so let’s pull together, working together, keeping good attitude being kind to each other, showing empathy,” she says.

An Alabama Public Radio news feature, which is part of APR effort to address the "news desert" along the state's Gulf coast. APR recruited and trained veteran print journalists in Mobile and Baldwin counties to join our news team to do radio stories from along the Gulf coast.