Walt Maddox doesn’t shy away from data, especially during a global pandemic.
In a virtual town hall on Wednesday, the Tuscaloosa mayor was quick to note that April is a critical month. According to recently released federal data, it will be the month that coronavirus cases could reach their peak.
“This is the month whether we know for certain, is it coming our way, what the impact’s going to be, and how we’re going to deal with it,” Maddox said. “My hope, God knows it’s my prayer, is that by the end of this month we’ve either been through the worst and have come out the other side…and that we’re turning the calendar into May and we have a real opportunity to see the sun coming over the horizon. We have a real opportunity to see the promise of tomorrow.”
According to the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, Alabama should see a gradual upward curve in cases next week, with a projected peak between April 10-20.
“Most scientists, most researchers, most doctors believe this is serious,” Maddox said. “The impact of this is harsh both from a health standpoint, an economic standpoint and a quality-of-life standpoint.”
Confirmed cases in Tuscaloosa have tripled from a week ago, two of which were firefighters. Maddox worries that the number is only going to increase, and he didn’t have to look further than Louisiana for a warning of what’s to come. He noted that testing in Alabama started a week and a half later than Louisiana, where cases increased five-fold in just one week.
These metrics matter, Maddox said, and the city is keeping a close eye on confirmed cases as well as Tuscaloosa’s financial profile. With any pandemic comes an economic downturn, and as the city has tightened reins, job security, opportunities for aid, and the state of Alabama football are key issues that have been on residents’ minds.
Maddox, along with guests Jackie Wuska, the executive director of United Way of West Alabama; Brendan Moore, executive director of urban development; and associate city attorney Scott Holmes addressed these pressing questions in the town hall on Wednesday, which you can view on Facebook Live here. Or, keep reading for our takeaways:
Ways to help:
With the first of the month also comes heightened calls for mutual aid. Often, service organizations are that vital lifeline for people who may need an extra boost to pay their rent, buy groceries or keep their power on. But without spring fundraisers and aid from grants, community service workers are also struggling to supply their salaries.
Wuska said United Way will match donations to the West Alabama Community Response Fund, which helps with basic needs like rent and utilities. Volunteer opportunities are also available at uwwa.org, where viewers can find a caring resource guide spanning from childcare to transportation services.
“Our goal is to help individuals maintain hope through our support, and just help them get through,” Wuska said.
The real heroes, Wuska stressed, are those who are staying at home. She listed a variety of things that could be done to give back remotely: Write thank-you notes to essential workers. Buy takeout from local restaurants. Clean out your closets.
Other resources include the West Alabama Food Bank, which is open from 9-11 a.m. and will feed up to 400 families during each two-hour period.
Can non-essential businesses still do curbside pickup or delivery?
No, but online shipping is permitted.
Can I still go to the liquor store?
Alcoholic Beverage Commission (ABC) stores are considered essential businesses.
Will local businesses get a relief package from the city?
With students spending the rest of the semester off campus, local businesses already affected by COVID-related closures are facing additional burdens. To illustrate this grim reality, Maddox gave a few statistics: With 25,000 people gone, and with existing closures, the city has lost half a billion dollars in annual spending – a loss which will take months if not years to recover from.
“The more this continues to move month by month by month, the more we delay our recovery,” Maddox said.
However, Maddox assured viewers that the city has strong reserves and excellent credit.
And this isn’t Tuscaloosa’s first rodeo. After the April 27, 2011 tornado, the city cash flowed over $50 million without borrowing a dime or raising taxes. Nine years later, they’ve paid back their reserves and are now bracing for another challenge.
Maddox said steps are in place to review an aid package for local businesses within the next couple of weeks. Because of current state regulations, it’s just going to take some extra paperwork and the vote of City Council. You can’t just give public funds to private businesses without working through some red tape, Holmes noted.
There aren’t many details yet, but Maddox knows an initial package will be three-pronged:
Target those businesses, like restaurants, that are the most vulnerable and were impacted early on.
Reward agencies that are directly responding to the COVID-19 crisis.
Invest in the Chamber of Commerce’s and the Community Foundation of West Alabama’s small business fund, which will award $60,000 to 18 businesses in the community, with the potential for more funding later.
“The Council deserves the opportunity to look at our financial picture, and then deserves the opportunity to review any recommendations that we have that will be forthcoming,” Maddox said. “But we certainly want to do something.”
How is social distancing being enforced?
Maddox noted that the Tuscaloosa Police Department (TPD) has had over 2000 interactions over the past two days and has not issued a single ticket. Police are making sure residents are following social distancing protocol, but he assured viewers that, especially in a yellow-light scenario, no one wants to issue a ticket.
“Don’t do it because you’re worried about a ticket,” Maddox said. “Do it because you love somebody and you want them to be safe.”
What would a red-light scenario look like?
Like with any executive order, a move toward a harsher lock-down would depend on the data. While the governor’s limited business order will be reevaluated on April 17, Maddox estimates that a local decision will be made within the next 7 to 10 days. He and his team are closely monitoring the daily census at the hospital, confirmed cases and staffing levels at the hospital as well as city services like TPD, fire and rescue and environmental services.
“Based off what we’ve seen, we aren’t at a spiking point yet,” Maddox said. “My hope, and all of our prayers, is that this will go down.”
What about football?
Maddox hopes fall football will continue, but he can’t give any promises. He said there’s a possibility that the season will be delayed or cut short.
“A lot of it depends on what we do right now,” Maddox said. “We need football season to begin our economic recovery, so let’s do everything possible.”
We’re all mad here.
Maddox knows everyone is mad; he’s “pissed off” himself. He’s going to miss his daughter’s high-school graduation, and he hates seeing his 6-year-old son cooped up in the house. And with Elevate on hold, he’s also going to miss out on a key opportunity for Tuscaloosa to grow. But he assured viewers that the city’s got this.
“You should be mad,” he said. “But here’s the thing. We have to have hope, because we’re going to get through this. We don’t know how to fail in Tuscaloosa.”