An APR News Feature
More Alabama cities are requiring residents to wear face masks as a result of COVID-19. Selma joined Montgomery and Birmingham with a mask order last Friday. Other municipalities like Tuscaloosa, Decatur, and Mobile are thinking about it. The Tuscaloosa City Council will take public comment later today on a mask requirement. This meeting takes place after 36 people died of COVID-19 in Tuscaloosa County.
If you think the issue of masks in the city of Tuscaloosa is new, it’s not. Mayor Walt Maddox did a TV interview on June 5, right after ordering masks for anyone entering a city building. If you think the issue of cities in Alabama ordering residents to wear masks because of COVID-19 is new, it isn’t. Montgomery Mayor Steven L. Reed imposed his mask order just after the city council declined to approve an ordinance of its own. Montgomery is currently the hotspot of COVID-19 in Alabama with almost 3,600 cases, and nearly 100 deaths.
So, now it’s the turn of the Tuscaloosa City Council. Tuesday night's proceedings take place with two things approaching: summertime heat and plans by the University of Alabama to bring up to 40,000 member students back to campus as soon as August.
“We understand people have fatigue about this thing, right?” Dr. Lea Yerby said.
She teaches at the University of Alabama and practices at University Medical Center. She and her colleagues have been spending a lot of time on Alabama Public Radio talking about how to stay safe during the COVID-19.
“No matter what, the three main things that are going to be your main risk factors, are distance between you and another person, the length of time you’re around another person, and the number of people you’re around,” she said.
And, that message hasn’t changed a lot during the pandemic, no matter who’s talking.
“It’s all a matter of time and distance, as far as whether you can pick up an infection,” said Dr. Thomas Weida, who also practices at University Medical Center.
The message that wearing a mask will help stop the spread of COVID-19 is one that he’s talked about a lot on APR.
“Really this is really spread by respiratory droplets,” he said. “That’s the main source of transmission. And that’s why, again a mask is so important in stopping that spread. It doesn’t go past your mask.”
During one conversation, Weida even took a spray water bottle, put a cloth mask over the nozzle, and squirted several times to demonstrate how droplets don’t get past the mask.
Now, the Tuscaloosa City Council is taking public comment on whether to impose a citywide order on masks. One concern is restaurants and bars where people sit without masks around strangers for long periods of time. During APR’s story on how COVID-19 is prompting more business for food trucks while sitdown restaurants where closed, the issue of masks and gloves came up. We visited five food trucks for that story, and not all the workers were wearing masks or gloves. That mattered to one customer who asked us not to use her name.
“Yeah, the mask part. It does a little bit,” she said.
But, not everyone we talked was concerned.
“We’re ordering cheeseburgers, and some hot wings,” said Hailey Grace Steele, whowas there with her son Sam.
We talked about masks after they placed their order.
“Maybe, yeah, maybe a little. I don’t know. In a neighborhood food truck setting, probably less so than if I were in a grocery store or an indoor setting,” she said.
Now, that restaurants are partially re-opened, sitting outside in an open air is considered safer from the spread of COVID-19. We talked to Yerby about whether summertime heat and whether that would drive people inside to eat where there’s air conditioning
“Restaurants are still going to be more risk,” she said. “You’re going to be closest to whoever you’re at the table with, or whoever is the server.”
But, Yerby sympathizes on wearing a face mask in summertime heat. In Alabama, mid-90s are in the forecast for August.
“We’re southerners,” she said. "We know about fabrics and trying to survive the summer.”
Yerby said the fabric of choice when dressing for the summer in the south also applies to face masks as well.
“Again, this is probably a strange thing to think about,” she said. “But, breathable fabrics, cotton linen, probably not going to be wearing more of the synthetic ones in the summer.”
Another consideration for Tuscaloosa City leaders could be the possible arrival of 40,000 college-aged young people, assuming the University of Alabama resumes on-campus instruction as planned for August. Yerby said the strategy for handling COVID-19 in Tuscaloosa won’t change with the influx of college students. She said locals also know how to get around town when the University is in session.
“Avoid Target on move-in days,” she said. “I know that college students usually do their grocery shopping on Sunday nights. You know, the usual student behaviors from living in a college town.”
Proposals for the mandatory wearing of face masks could carry with it a possible fine of $25, although city council members appear leery of having Tuscaloosa Police acting as citywide mask monitors. Supporters of the idea of requiring face masks put together a change.org petition in favor of the idea.