Mayor: If voluntary efforts fail, masks may become mandatory

Jasper looking at face mask action

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Jasper Mayor David O'Mary said the Jasper City Council is expected next week to pass a resolution encouraging the use of face masks - but if COVID-19 cases fail to abate, the city could then start requiring masks.

O'Mary offered a review of what is still closed as the July 4 holiday approaches, as the city has already cancelled its annual fireworks show, in part due to the pandemic.

He also said some changes may be discussed at Thursday's 2 p.m. work session, as well as next Tuesday's council meeting. Both will be in the council chambers at City Hall. 

O'Mary made the remarks on the day that Jefferson County and the City of Tupelo, Miss., started requiring face masks. The City of Birmingham has already been requiring the wearing of facial coverings due to the COVID-19 continuing to escalate in cases.

Gov. Kay Ivey on Tuesday extended the state's Safer at Home order to July 31, as officials said infections are continuing to spread statewide. While encouraging people to wear masks and to social distance - and wearing a mask herself during a press conference - she said it would be "next to impossible" to enforce a mandatory state mask order. 

"But you know, you shouldn't have to order somebody to do what is in your own best interest and that of the folks you care about, your family, your friends and your neighbors," she said. 

A record 1,037 new cases statewide was recorded on Friday, while positive tests and hospitalization have continued to increase.  State Health Officer Scott Harris has said in recent days that data shows it is not because of more testing but from an increasing spread of infection. The percentage of total testing has been going up and is at 11 percent, its highest point to date, he said Tuesday.

Harris noted the state is at its highest point of hospitalization during the pandemic, with 750 COVID-19 patients in state hospitals and another 300 awaiting test results. He said only 275 ICU beds remain available in the state. 

As of Tuesday morning, the Alabama Department of Public Health reported Walker County had 843 cases (an increase of 16 from Monday) and 17 deaths (an increase of two since Monday). More than 7,260 tests have been performed. The county had 225 cases in the previous two weeks, about 27 percent of its total cases. Walker County still has about the third highest rate of confirmed cases in the north half of the state, at 1,120.9 per 100,000.

Statewide Tuesday, 926 people have died from the virus, about 75 percent over age 65 - although that age group is 17 percent of the total cases. "Seniors have a one in nine chance of not surviving. That's a tragedy," Harris said, who said he was pleading with people to take the pandemic seriously. About 29 percent, or 10,715 cases, of the state's total cases have occurred in the past two weeks. 

O'Mary said Monday city officials have been discussing whether to make use of masks mandatory. He predicted at next week's council meeting, "you'll see the council pass a resolution calling on people to wear a mask. We've been looking closely at the Jefferson County mandate. If you look at that, it makes a lot of sense. It is not burdened with complexities. 

"It would be a resolution encouraging (masks). And then, if you do not see improvement there, I wouldn't be surprised if the council doesn't come back two or three weeks down the road and make it mandatory," O'Mary said. He later emphasized the council will "look hard at making it mandatory if they don't see improvement."

O'Mary said the resolution will have the endorsement of the city's medical clinic board. Physicians are supporting and encouraging the resolution, as they are encouraging people to wear the masks, he said. 

He added city officials are looking at the virus numbers in the city and county.

"The council members I've talked to - and, of course, it's their vote - feel they want people to have a chance to do it voluntarily," he said. 

The mayor said officials are still seeing numbers going up and that he read at hospitals across Alabama the ICU capacity for COVID-19 is about 82 percent it utilization. "That's getting pretty high, in my opinion," he said. 

He said the city has been fortunate that among its employees it has only seen a few cases of the virus. "None of them thus far have been fatal," he said. 

Nighttime park curfew may soon end

O'Mary said as for the city parks, they have been closed from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., due to the COVID-19. "That's when the governor issued an order, and everybody was to stay at home. We were having some folks congregating in our park. It seemed to make sense to shut our parks our parks down at night, because (the police department was) seeing people congregate at night time," he said. 

People as late as Monday morning have been asking city officials about the fact it is now summer and the sun is up earlier. 

"We're going to put it to the council at the work session on Thursday," he said. "I fully expect they will probably drop the curfew at the parks, or they may not. But I think that is what will happen." 

He noted the city parks have continued to be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. and people have always been welcomed to come. 

O'Mary said the Memorial Park Natatorium continues to be closed.

"The leadership there is making a presentation at the work session on Thursday about some things they want to do, how to manage it. I can't predict the council's response on that, but that will be heard at the work session on Thursday," he said. 

He noted that the Foothills Festival has been cancelled this year, and he noted people have asked with the Jasper Civic Center will be opened.

"I cannot answer that," he said. "Of course, Desperation Church meets there." O'Mary said there is a contractual relationship between the church and the city to use that space. "They pay us rent to have church there. The governor authorizes that," he said. "As long as they do the social distancing and we can't stand in the way of that. I can't predict when we will open that back up. The library is still closed. But I think what we see on Thursday could be a prelude to what will happen in the next few weeks."

As for the Fourth of July, O'Mary said people could go to the city parks and Walker County Lake, which is now in the city limits. He said opportunities for fishing, archery, picnics and other activities are at the county lake. 

"You could put a kayak in the lake. There's lot's of things you can do there," he said.  

He also said people could go to Smith Lake for its recreational facilities. 

O'Mary said City Hall will be closed Friday and will reopen on Monday. No garbage service will be held on Friday.