Photo: District 29 Representative Becky Nordgren (pictured above), District 28 Representative Gil Isbell and District 30 Representative Craig Lipscomb recently update local residents and officials on the most recent COVID-19 developments. Photo courtesy of Rep. Becky Nordgren.
By Katie Bohannon, Staff Writer
Local Alabama House Representatives held an online legislative update on Tuesday, April 7. District 28 Representative Gil Isbell, District 29 Representative Becky Nordgren and District 30 Representative Craig Lipscomb spoke during the webinar, informing local residents on the most recent COVID-19 news.
The Chamber of Gadsden and Etowah County CEO and President Heather Brothers New facilitated the webinar, asking representatives for additional information on topics like social distancing, unemployment issues, hospital care and state budgets.
Director of Gadsden-Etowah County Emergency Management Agency Deborah Gaither recently notified the Gadsden City Council that Etowah County received a D- social distancing rating (according to UNACAST) at the April 7 meeting. In response to this rating in counties throughout Alabama and the rising concern of individuals treating social distancing as optional or trivial, Attorney General Steve Marshall ordered disobedience of Governor Kay Ivey’s stay-at-home order a Class C or Level Three Misdemeanor. While there are several exceptions to this penalty for those who must leave their homes to work at essential businesses or perform essential tasks such as grocery shopping, violation of the governor’s order will result in punishment and up to a $500 fine.
Complaints arose following the governor’s stay-at-home order from small businesses, who are experiencing the burden of limiting services, lay-offs or shutting down completely. Isbell discussed how big-box retailers like Lowe’s Home Improvement, Academy Sports + Outdoors and Walmart are altering their protocol and trying to avoid large groups of people congregating in one place. Though both big-box retailers and small businesses alike are striving to implement safety measures, obscure statements resulted in several shops struggling to remain afloat.
“Early on in the stay-at-home order, it was my opinion that there was some unfairness in this matter of big-box stores being permitted to stay open while our small businesses are having to stay closed down,” said Lipscomb. “The problem was that there were portions of the big-box businesses that were deemed essential while others were not.”
Lipscomb spoke with his liaison for the governor’s office to discuss the option of big-box stores defining essential from nonessential through sectioning off departments with barriers or tape. This method would delineate only the areas considered essential and prevent people from wandering into other areas, like clothing, that might result in unfair treatment to smaller clothing retailers who were forced to shut their doors entirely.
Despite the somewhat unbalanced scales, Lipscomb offered some positive insight.
“I made a trip to Lowe’s [Saturday] just to put my eyeballs on the situation and it did look like people were taking this much more seriously,” said Lipscomb. “There were very few people in the store and they were maintaining an extreme distance from one another. I was very pleased to see that. But what we need to do is to contact our local municipalities and see that they enforce the law and make sure that things are being done in a way the governor would have them done. From a personal aspect, my daughter wanted to go fishing with a friend down the street and I had to tell her no. It’s just one of those things where we’re all going to have to pitch in, do our best and do our due diligence to keep ourselves and other people safe.”
Unemployment remains a major concern for individuals and families dealing with the consequences of COVID-19. New stated that while the unemployment office typically handles around 1,500 claims per week, last week alone the office received 70,000. Under the CARES Act, unemployed citizens who experienced job loss due to COVID-19 can apply to receive an additional $600 a week for the next four months.
“[Governor approval for $600 a week] is something we’re waiting for,” said Isbell. “I sent an email to our liaison with the governor’s office yesterday speaking about the $600. The governor has not signed off on that yet, and [our liaison] is supposed to get back with me to inform me why. That $600 on top of what people are receiving from the state would be extremely helpful to all households. Hopefully we’ll get a response in the near future.”
While Alabamians wait, Nordgren encouraged constituents to visit the Alabama Labor Department’s website to apply for the additional $600. She clarified that these applications are not continuations of previously filed unemployment, but new claims because of COVID-19. While applying, individuals should indicate that their unemployment is related to the virus.
Local hospitals are working diligently to provide the utmost care for the Etowah County community during this time. With both Gadsden Regional Medical Center and Riverview Regional Medical Center located in such close proximity to one another, community members fortunately have greater access to healthcare than many in similar situations. Lipscomb communicated recently with the respective hospitals and asked the administration what he could do to assist them. He noted that the resounding answer was typically, “We’ve got it all handled.”
“I feel like we’re in a pretty good position here,” said Lipscomb. “Obviously, if we get to a situation where we need a great many more respirators than we currently have, I think the federal government is prepared to make that happen for us. We are perpetually needing personal protective equipment [for healthcare workers]—N95 masks, face protection, gloves, etc. If you have these things, do us a favor and take those to your local hospital. Donate those for their use, because that is in a high demand right now.”
Nordgren and Isbell recently spoke with GRMC CEO Corey Ewing, who confirmed the hospital had an adequate supply of PPEs. Ewing contacted the Alabama Department of Public Health and found a way to sanitize N95 respirators (masks), so that the masks can be reused. While each hospital in Etowah County does have COVID-19 patients, privacy laws prohibit the hospitals from releasing much information to ensure the patients’ protection. Both GRMC and RRMC are working directly and continuously with the American Hospital Association, ADPH and state representatives to determine the most effective approach to COVID-19.
“The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a form that hospitals fill out every day,” said Isbell. “It tells them how many masks, safeguards, protective garments and gloves they have. They’re making sure that if there is a proration that needs to be done, the APDH will oversee that through CDC protocol.”
There are 52 percent of hospital beds available, 35 percent of ICU beds available and 1,800 ventilators available statewide. With tracking and projection, healthcare workers can determine what is most needed and when to provide the highest quality of support for patients and themselves. In addition to hospitals caring for COVID-19 patients, the Alabama Army National Guard was activated to aid with COVID-19 relief. Though the national guard is currently in limited use, it is in a position to act quickly and accurately when necessary.
“The national guard has been activated for many reasons,” said Nordgren. “I just had a conversation with the governor’s office about how they’re going to be using the national guard to transport patients from rural hospitals to other hospitals. The state has identified several locations [where they are preparing for patients] like Sheraton Hotel in Jefferson County. The national guard is assisting in that as well.”
With the impact of COVID-19, Lipscomb and Isbell discussed how the lack of a payroll tax might affect the state budget. With the past year’s prosperity, rather than decrease the budget for the upcoming year, the state decided to keep the budget level. While the budget might decrease in some areas for conservative reasons, in general the budget will remain as is.
“Chairman Bill Poole was adamant there would be level spending,” said Isbell. “If things really got bad, there is a rainy day fund that can be drawn on in the range of 400 to 500 million dollars, that is in there right now for the education trust fund (which was 7.1 billion last year). That’s on both budgets—the general budget and educational trust fund—because of the reduction of sales tax that the state will be receiving in the future. But, I think that overall Representative Poole was very positive. Even though the state is going through this, he thinks we can recover from it quickly and it should not have a long term effect on the budgets after this year.”
Nordgren detailed how the legislature plans to move forward. While legislative sessions are currently postponed due to COVID-19, elected officials remain committed to serving their state and local communities. Lipscomb attested to the constant communication between representatives and local leadership, EMA and hospital administrations, remaining open and available for those in need.
When the legislature does convene again, the representatives will work to pass a law that defines the term “quarantine,” because in the Alabama codebook there is no clear definition. To act in prudence and establish preventative measures, the legislature plans to clarify state protocol to avoid confusion or delay should the state ever again face another crisis like COVID-19.
Nordgren also advised essential workers to consider keeping a copy of the most recent ADPH on their person, because the order lists essential businesses still open for operation. Lipscomb noted that now is not the time for individuals to search for loopholes in the proclamation to avoid following protocol. He urged people to practice common sense and value caution. For essential business owners who have employees traveling from home to work, Lipscomb advised employers to write letters that state their employee is an essential worker with the paragraph in the ADPH deposition cited. If an essential employee is stopped, having these documents readily available will make situations clear and quick for law enforcement officers and ensure that essential employees avoid any problems traveling.
Nordgren, Isbell and Lipscomb remind others that light still shines during dark times. The representatives dedicate themselves to promoting knowledge and garnering accurate data for the public to remain informed on the latest news during this challenging time. Governor Ivey recently launched altogetheralabama.org, a new website that serves as a one-stop shop for Alabamians either need help themselves or seek to help others during the COVID-19 pandemic. Individuals and businesses can discover state, national and local resources and general resource guides are easily available for municipalities and counties alike. Those who wish to extend helping hands can find ways to support local businesses, volunteer or donate items. Businesses and nonprofits seeking to support their communities can learn how to submit an assistance program, post jobs or produce supplies, reaching out to help one another when compassion is needed most.
“The ADPH says they predict April 16 or 17 being our peak for the virus,” said Nordgren. “Some projections that were given out in Calhoun County have it projected as April 22, but that was based on models without this stay-at-home order. I’m not sure which it will be, but that’s not far away. I’m ready to get this virus out of here.”
To contact Representative Nordgren, call 256-328-1653 or visit her Facebook page. To contact Representative Lipscomb, call 256-390-0515 or visit his Facebook page. To contact Representative Isbell, call 256-328-2032 or visit his Facebook page.
For more information on aid for small businesses, visit atlasalabama.org. For more information on how COVID-19 is impacting Alabama, visit altogetheralabama.org.