Alabama college town closes bars after ‘unacceptable’ rise in COVID-19 cases threatens on-campus classes

Published 9:26 am Tuesday, August 25, 2020

The mayor of Tuscaloosa announced Monday that the city is closing bars for the next two weeks after University of Alabama officials described an “unacceptable” rise in COVID-19 cases that could derail plans to continue the semester on campus.

Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox announced the closures along with the end of bar service at restaurants during a news conference with campus officials. Maddox said university officials requested the action. Maddox said an unchecked spread of the virus threatens both the health care system and the local economy if students are sent home for the semester to do remote learning.

“The truth is that fall in Tuscaloosa is in serious jeopardy,” Maddox said.

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The university did not immediately release case numbers, but school officials said there has been a rapid rise in cases, particularly among fraternities and sororities. The university on Friday had announced a moratorium on student gatherings both on and off campus.

“Although our initial re-entry test was encouraging, the rise in COVID cases that we’ve seen in recent days is unacceptable and if unchecked threatens our ability to complete the semester on campus,” University of Alabama President Stuart Bell said at the news conference.

The university had earlier announced that initial results from a testing program found that few students returning to campus were positive for COVID-19. Dr. Ricky Friend, dean of college of community health sciences, said subsequent testing last week has found more cases.

“During that time, we encountered many students who have been exposed since returning to campus, particularly in the Greek system,” Friend said.

While the daily average of new COVID-19 cases has been trending downward statewide, school officials have expressed concern about images of large crowds waiting outside off-campus bars.

The university on Friday announced a 14-day moratorium on all in-person student events outside of classroom instruction. Social gatherings are prohibited both on and off campus and the common areas of dormitories and fraternity and sorority houses are closed, according to the new guidelines. Visitors are not being allowed in dormitories and sorority and fraternity houses.

Bell wrote that violations of health and safety protocols, both on and off campus, are subject to harsh disciplinary action, up to and including suspension from the university.

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey praised the mayor and university officials for acting swiftly.

“They have made tough decisions, and I appreciate Mayor Walt Maddox and The University of Alabama leadership for tackling a serious problem as quickly as possible,” Ivey said.