Though they had nothing to do with implementing it, a recent health order requiring face coverings in public places in unincorporated areas has led to mixed reactions among Mobile County Commissioners.
As Lagniappe reported, Mobile County Health Officer Dr. Bernard Eichold issued a public health order July 2 requiring the wearing of face coverings in public places in all unincorporated, non-policed areas of Mobile County to help slow a growing number of local COVID-19 cases.
The mandate essentially expanded a similar masking requirement in the city of Mobile to areas of the county that do not fall within the jurisdiction of a municipality. Eichold said at the time he was leaving it up to other cities to enact and enforce similar masking requirements within their own boundaries.
“The threat of COVID-19 remains high and we must do everything we can to limit its spread,” Eichold said. “Until we have a vaccine or treatment for COVID-19, the best weapons we have are wearing face coverings, maintaining a social distance of six feet, cleaning high-contact surfaces while also keeping our hands clean.”
Despite its name, the Mobile County Health Department (MCHD) does not fall under the County Commission’s purview. As one of two standalone public health offices in the state, it has the authority to implement certain public health restrictions with or without the commission’s approval.
Still, some residents turned to commissioners looking for answers after the new masking requirement took effect over the weekend. One man, who did not identify himself, addressed commissioners about the issue during a special-called meeting on Monday.
The criticism of the masking requirement drew mixed responses from Commission President Jerry Carl and Commissioner Merceria Ludgood, who serves on the “Unified Command” that includes Eichold and Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson — both of whom have supported local mask requirements.
Both commissioners told the man if he has an issue he should take it up with Eichold and MCHD, but Carl seemed to express some disagreement about the recent flurry of mask requirements in public spaces.
“The commission had no input in that whatsoever. They’ve never asked us our opinion, and if they had, they probably wouldn’t have gotten the response that they wanted,” Carl said. “I think we’re all tired of being scared, we’re all tired of living in fear and we’re all tired of being tired.”
Pushing back, Ludgood said she was “tired of people dying” and “tired of people getting infected.”
After Carl suggested people in unincorporated areas of the county were “adults” capable of deciding whether or not they needed to wear a mask, Ludgood said, “I only wish that were true.” She went on to clarify language about fines set in Eichold’s July 2 mask order, which can range anywhere from $25 to $500.
Speaking to how politicized the issue of masks and face coverings have become, the citizen who spoke at the end of Monday’s meeting said it could be a decisive factor for him heading into the July 14 runoff election for Alabama’s First Congressional District seat between Carl and former State Senator Bill Hightower.
“I was worried,” he said. “I voted for you in the primary and I was thinking, ‘If he’s going to vote to mandate me to not be sovereign in my own thoughts, I may have to vote for someone else.’”
County awards second batch of small business grants
During its July 6 meeting, the commission approved $353,433 in allocations to 21 local companies through its Small Business Relief Fund (SBRF) set up in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. In its first batch of SBRF allocations, commissioners awarded $118,140 to nine businesses across the county.
According to David Rodgers, vice president of economic development at the Mobile Area Chamber of Commerce, $471,573 has been granted to 30 local businesses negatively impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and state mandates that closed businesses to stop the spread of the disease earlier this year.
Despite some lingering restrictions, most businesses have been allowed to reopen, but Rodgers said the economic impact of the virus and the government’s response to it are still being felt today. He thanked the commissioners for their “leadership” in getting the SBRF program off the ground so quickly.
“It’s great that we are able to help small businesses in our community,” Rodgers said. “Thirty local companies have been helped through this program so far, and that has impacted almost 150 employees.”
As Lagniappe has reported, the commission pledged to invest an initial $1 million into the SBRF last month despite being initially told by Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall it would be unlawful to use public funds to support small businesses negatively impacted by the ongoing pandemic.
Commissioner Connie Hudson, who championed the program, said the county’s legal staff worked closely with state agencies and the chamber to make sure the program complies with state laws that allow public funds to benefit private entities if the expenditure serves a greater public purpose.
Despite that, Commissioner Ludgood has continued to express some skepticism about the program’s legal footing and has vocally abstained from all votes related to the SBRF so far.
Some of the largest benefactors of the program so far have received $25,000 to help pay for “rent, utilities, maintenance and payroll expenses” for their employees; some of those companies include Perdido Queen Cruises, Kazoola Eatery and Entertainment, Dog Dream LLC, ellenJAY Bakery and a few others.
“I’m looking at these addresses and I don’t know all these businesses, but they’re from all over the place — there’s Chunchula, you’ve got West Mobile, you’ve got downtown — and that’s encouraging,” Carl said. “That was my biggest concern … that these would wind up targeting just one particular area.”
A full list of the businesses approved for SBRF grants is available at lagniappe-staging.qv5ur1zx-liquidwebsites.com.
Businesses in the first two SBRF waves were able to receive up to $25,000, but commissioners have previously agreed to cap future allocations at $10,000. It was originally thought private businesses and banking institutions might chip in to support the program, but so far that has not materialized.
Hudson said last week the goal is to “help as many local businesses as possible,” but as of July 6, the commission had already allocated nearly half of the initial $1 million it set aside for SBRF grants.
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