As coronavirus cases stay low, north Alabama officials voice some frustration with closures
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Bizarre as it may seem to contemplate rewards amid the coronavirus pandemic, there is some degree of frustration in north Alabama that hoped-for reopenings such as dine-in restaurants and personal services businesses are still closed just as they are in hot spots around the state.

a man wearing a suit and tie: Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle during a visit on April 28, 2020, to Toyota Motor Manufacturing in Huntsville.

“It’s kind of, when do you get your snow-cone?” Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle said. “It does get back to the argument of, when do you get your reward for doing well?”

Yes, there is frustration in north Alabama – where more than 11,000 COVID-19 tests have been administered and the spread of the virus, at least statistically speaking, appears to be largely under control. And elected leaders and Huntsville hospital officials for weeks have lauded the efforts of north Alabama to follow the new "sanitize and separate" protocols that they have credited for the shrinking coronavirus caseloads.

Maybe, Battle thought, that behavior would be rewarded in the form of reopened restaurants and personal services businesses. Those rewards not only for customers cooped up after four weeks of sheltering at home but, more importantly, for the financial survival of devastated businesses.

But the new health order announced earlier this week by Gov. Kay Ivey gave no leeway to areas of the state blunting the virus' spread and state health officer Dr. Scott Harris instead issued that new order to be imposed in all 67 counties.

Related: AL.com’s coverage of the coronavirus pandemic.

Battle said he had hoped for more in anticipating Ivey's announcement, hoped that restaurants could resume in-store dining and businesses such as hair and nail salons could make plans to reopen for the first time in a month – amid a lengthy list of safety precautions now coined the "new normal." The mayor said he often hears about profitable restaurants before the coronavirus that are now facing bankruptcy.

Indeed, a list of recommendations from Madison County leaders to the governor provided for restaurants and personal services businesses to reopen when the stay-at-home order expires Thursday at 5 p.m.

Instead, those closures remain in place. And there would be, at least this week, no reward for north Alabama.

"One size does not fit all in this case," Battle said.

Madison Mayor Paul Finley said that while there were 167 new coronavirus cases statewide on Wednesday, only two of those were in Madison County.

“I know there are a lot of people excited about some of the things that can open,” he said. “And there’s definitely some frustration on others who can’t open.”

Battle said that, at one time, there was conversation about reopening the state by regions based on their COVID-19 status. Such an approach would seemingly be beneficial to north Alabama than the comprehensive approach state leaders ultimately adopted.

And at Wednesday's briefing – televised throughout north Alabama -- Battle repeatedly referred to just 26 active COVID-19 cases in Madison County, which has a population of almost 373,000 people. He based the number of active cases on positive tests in Madison County announced by the state health department over the past 14 days, which is generally considered the necessary recovery time from the coronavirus.

To Madison County's west, the positive test rate per 100,000 people is among the lowest in the state in Limestone, Lauderdale, Colbert and Lawrence counties. To the south, though, Madison County is bordered by Marshall County – one of the worst-hit counties in the state with 315 positive tests.

Still, the longtime mayor said he took no exception to the decisions made by Ivey and Harris.

"They don’t want to say one area can do this and one area can't," Battle said. "As you look at it, if Birmingham's a hot spot and you open the restaurants in Huntsville, do you want the Birmingham folks coming up here and then having a potential for a hot spot being brought in here?

"They looked over the whole situation and decided to do it as a state," Battle said. "I'm fine with the way they did it."

Like Battle, Madison County Commission Chair Dale Strong said the county – or the region – doesn't exist in a vacuum sealed from the rest of the state.

"If we were making decisions just for Madison County, it may be a little bit different," he said Tuesday. "But we understand the larger picture."

Downtown Huntsville Inc., which champions vibrant growth in the heart of the Rocket City, said in a statement Thursday that no reopening restaurants has gone “generally unexplained” and asked for immediate guidelines for those businesses.

“We respectfully call upon the state to publicly share this week the specific criteria it is evaluating to lift this aspect of the Safer at Home order,” the statement said. “Specifically, what informational results will be required in order to allow our food and beverage and service industry small businesses to re-open with social-distancing, sanitation and occupancy restrictions in place similar to the opportunity afforded to other small business entrepreneurs in the state’s newly-issued emergency order?”

As the wait continues for restaurants and personal serivces businesses, there is no immediate tangible reward for north Alabama.

“Our reward is that we get to lead the rest of the state and we have led the rest of the state in this,” Battle said. “If we keep doing what we’re doing and the rest of the state follows suit, we will be out of this quicker rather than later.”

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©2020 Alabama Media Group, Birmingham

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