An APR News feature
Alabama and the rest of the country have been in the COVID-19 pandemic for a year now.
The virus has changed several day-to-day activities and the way many businesses operate. Some sectors like the entertainment industry are bouncing back with spring and summer concerts right around the corner, but others are still struggling. There’s a new push to expand Medicaid to protect frontline workers and a call for compassion from the funeral industry.
Charles Perine is the Executive Director of the Alabama Board of Funeral Service. He said mortuary workers and funeral home workers have been struggling to carry unrelentingly heavy loads since last March. That’s when COVID-19 hit.
“Typical work week now is busy. Higher-volume funeral homes may be averaging three or four a day,” Perine said. “Lower-volume may be averaging five or six a week. The cremation rate has gone up. The death rate is up so much since the pandemic hit.”
Coronavirus cases and hospitalizations are starting to slow down in Alabama. But funeral homes continue working long hours—sometimes to 3 or 4 in the morning-- to keep up with the death toll from COVID-19. Perine said the public might not know how dangerous the job can be.
“People have to understand that mortuary work is an extension of the health care field because the remains have to be handled,” Perine said. “Those remains have to be prepared. There’s the exposure to blood. There’s exposure to any air in the body that has to come out. There’s exposure to when we go do a removal.”
Several issues face the funeral industry right now: from a shortage on caskets, monuments and headstones, to long hours, to overworked employees. But Perine said one of the bigger problems the industry is facing right now comes from customers not communicating to funeral directors about exposure.
“They are doing their best to keep everything clean, but we’re having a problem with individuals who show up, and they are positive,” Perine said. “They don’t let the director know, and they are refusing to wear masks, and they are putting people in harm’s way. There are ways that they can still service you without the consumer exposing the entire funeral home and the staff and the next family that comes in.”
The funeral industry isn’t the only sector recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic. Other frontline workers like grocery store employees, custodians, and nurses and doctors say they’re being worked to the bone after a year of bearing the brunt of the pandemic.
To help Alabama workers recover, the nonprofit, nonpartisan coalition Alabama Arise is pushing the state to prioritize Medicaid expansion and guaranteed paid sick leave.
"We’ve known that we’ve had this underlying problem that we’ve been neglecting the population health of our state; the overall health,” said Jim Carnes, policy director at Alabama Arise. “And that neglect really exacted a severe price during COVID. It put Alabama among the top states for this severe impact.”
Alabama Arise advocates for low-income residents. The organization just released a report called “The State of Working Alabama 2021.”
Part of the findings criticize Alabama lawmakers for quickly moving to pass legislation helping employers. Alabama Arise said these measures left out essential workers and others in the workforce rendered the most vulnerable by COVID-19. One law recently passed protects businesses against claims of virus exposure.
“One thing we’ve seen in the pandemic is the celebration of hometown heroes,” Carnes said. “It’s wonderful that the people who are on the front lines getting praise and gratitude from the public, but we are not treating them like heroes...It’s really hard to reconcile our public adulation for this segment of the workforce while we let hundreds of thousands of them go without health coverage.”
Alabama is one of only 12 states in the country that hasn’t expanded Medicaid. Carnes said now is the time to make that change once and for all. Under the Affordable Care Act, the federal government pays for 90 percent of the costs of offering health coverage to low-income adults. This leaves Alabama responsible for just 10 percent of the bill. Carnes said the Yellowhammer State needs that coverage now more than ever.
“Alabama’s current Medicaid program is the second most stringent in the country. Our limit is 18 percent of the federal poverty level,” Carnes said. “That means that if an Alabama adult makes $100 a week, they make too much to get Medicaid coverage in Alabama. If we were to expand Medicaid, the income limit would go to 138 percent of the federal poverty level, which means that families living on low wage jobs would be able to have reliable, affordable health coverage.”
Carnes said state lawmakers who oppose the expansion are caught up on how Alabama will cover the 10 percent cost. But help is on the way.
The U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee recently proposed increasing incentives to states like Alabama that have not expanded. If the proposal passes, it could send $940 million to Alabama for Medicaid expansion.
And Carnes said that’s not the only offer on the table right now.
“We have a surplus in the Medicaid budget this year. We have prospects for new revenue in proposed legislation this year. But most important of all, we have large amounts of federal money coming to Alabama in the COVID relief bills. There’s a new round of funding coming in this month,” he said.
Medicaid expansion would provide coverage for hundreds of thousands of Alabamians, and Carnes said that’s not the only hook. He said expansion would mean a huge boost to Alabama’s economy.
“We would bring in literally billions of dollars in federal funding, which supports Medicaid expansion,” Carnes said. “We are not only denying our people the opportunity to address health care needs, we are also refusing to bring billions of dollars into the economy.”
As the push for Medicaid expansion continues and the funeral home industry calls for patience and compassion, there appears to be good news for the entertainment industry. Shows are slowing starting to start up again, but things will look different this year.
Jason Oschwald is with Big Spring Entertainment. The company owns and operates Druid City Music Hall in Tuscaloosa.
“Last spring and summer, the drive-in shows were a big deal. I think this spring and summer, what everyone is going to be talking about is ‘pod shows,’” Oschwald said.
“Basically, what we’ve created is an outdoor venue where everyone is in their own suite. You can go through security. Get your ticket scanned. Everything can be touchless. Everybody’s masked up and following safety protocols,” he said. “When you get into the venue, you go to your pod. While you’re in your own pod, you can take your mask off, get a drink or bite to eat, and when you get up to go to the bathroom, everybody puts their masks on.”
Oschwald said while it’s exciting for shows to slowly start up again, there’s a lot of planning and money that goes into getting bands back on tours.
“One of the most challenging things, lot of these tours, they have bus fees, fuel, production managers, tour managers, everyone in the band,” he said. “There’s a huge cost: lights, sound, all of the production, moving everything in theses trucks.”
Oschwald said with all of the moving pieces of a giant puzzle, it’s going to take a while for concert goers to see their favorite performers.
“You can’t just flip a switch and go back on the road. You have to plan a national tour to amateurize all of these costs. When people say, ‘When am I going to see this A-list artist again?’ they have to wait until they can tour the entire country,” Oschwald said. “If one state or market reels back restrictions, then they can’t go because everyone will lose money and it throws the whole tour off. For the larger tours, I think it will be into 2022 before we see those large national acts.”
The pandemic has changed the entertainment industry. And Oschwald said that’s made him think about “future-proofing” venues.
“Arguably, one of the largest shows of 2021 was Travis Scott virtual performance on Fortnight. Millions watched his concert completely virtual. So, how is that going to shift?” he said. “There are a lot of streaming companies that have popped up out of that. What will the experience be like once a show is sold out? At Druid City Music Hall for example, a show with 1000 tickets, do we sell virtual experiences at a reduced rate?”
Oschwald said he thinks the entertainment industry will quickly bounce back after a year of damage from the COVID-19 pandemic. He said music workers and fans are ready to get back in their element.
“That feeling when the lights go down and the band takes the stage… the audience starts roaring and cheering… and they’re all there for the show that you helped produce or market or sale tickets to…and everyone’s on their feet… that’s the goosebumps. The hair on the back of your neck moment,” Oschwald said. “That’s kind of what we all live for. To have those moments to remind you why we do what we do.”