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Alabama County Takes A More Cautious Approach, As The State Relaxes Restrictions

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Alabama is one of the states where COVID-19 cases are going up, even as people relax social distancing and venture out of their houses more. Republican Governor Kay Ivey allowed more businesses to reopen, including theaters and clubs last Friday.

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KAY IVEY: We cannot sustain a delayed way of life as we search for a vaccine.

SHAPIRO: Jefferson County is taking a more cautious approach. The county includes Alabama's largest city Birmingham. And county health officer Mark Wilson has decided to keep entertainment venues there closed.

Dr. Wilson, thank you for joining us.

MARK WILSON: Nice to be here, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Tell me what you're seeing in Jefferson County that made you want to keep entertainment venues closed for now.

WILSON: Well, we're seeing increased number of cases in Jefferson County. Now, to be fair, that is because we're doing more testing in large part. But the number that really got my attention was the fact that we've had increased numbers of people in the hospital with COVID-19 since May 8, which was when the previous order had been issued. We'd had about a 30% increase of hospitalizations related to COVID-19.

SHAPIRO: And if those numbers keep going up, do you have the hospital capacity to take care of those patients?

WILSON: Well, we're in good shape right now. But we just want to be proactive and try to avoid getting to a crisis situation.

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

It's easy for people to cross county lines. Are you worried that people in Jefferson County are just going cross borders, go to theaters and clubs in other parts of the state and then bring infections home with them all the while depriving businesses in Jefferson County of their economic business?

WILSON: Yes, that is a concern, and that's a very valid point. And I think that just points out some of the limitations of what I can do as health officer for just one county. We are part of a greater metropolitan area of about 1.2 million people. Jefferson County is about 660,000. So you're correct. That's a very valid point. And we did put a limit on this extension of restrictions on entertainment venues. It should end at the end of June 6.

SHAPIRO: Are you feeling pushback, whether from political leaders or from citizens in the area who say you're making the wrong decision?

WILSON: Sure. There's pushback about this from some business interests. Most of the political - local politicians have been very supportive. But we're starting to get some pushback 'cause everybody's concerned about the economy. On the flip side, I hear a lot from people who are very, very concerned about the risk, especially our African American community and others who feel more vulnerable, who feel that we're not doing enough.

SHAPIRO: So when you get that pushback, what's your response to the business owner who says, I might have to shut down because of you?

WILSON: Well, I'm very sympathetic. I get it. And it's not an easy thing to do to issue these orders. I'm thinking that I'm probably not going to issue any more after this because, you know, it is a big concern. And I think there's a limit to what I can do as one person in terms of issuing orders because, ultimately, we have to have the cooperation of everybody doing the right thing, including individual citizens.

SHAPIRO: You're saying even if the numbers in Birmingham keep going up, you don't think you'll issue another order keeping these businesses closed?

WILSON: Well, I certainly hope I don't have to. It just will be difficult or increasingly difficult if none of the surrounding counties do it or the rest of the state doesn't do it. I think we have to have some political support in what we do in order to be successful.

SHAPIRO: Sounds like you feel like there should be a little more guidance from higher up than there is - or a different kind of guidance perhaps.

WILSON: By higher up you mean?

SHAPIRO: Well, you're saying you can't do this alone and if other counties around you aren't going to help out, then what - you know, it's not going to do what it needs to do.

WILSON: Yes. And I mean, as you pointed out earlier, we're not an island unto ourselves. So that idea of people crossing county lines and bringing disease back is a very valid concern. So I have to take that into consideration. Ultimately, I just want people to be safe and practice personal responsibility.

SHAPIRO: Dr. Mark Wilson is the health officer for Jefferson County, Ala., speaking with us from Birmingham.

Thank you very much.

WILSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.