By The Associated Press
MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Alabama alcohol regulators voted Tuesday to lift restrictions on operating hours for bars and restaurants that were imposed in the summer to stem the spread of the new coronavirus and adopted new rules written in conjunction with the businesses.
With cases of COVID-19 increasing at a slower rate after months of a statewide rule requiring masks in public, members of the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board voted to eliminate an emergency rule that required businesses to stop selling alcohol at 11 p.m. and close 30 minutes later.
Originally intended to keep down crowds and encourage social distancing, the rule also reduced revenues and limited tips for servers. The Tuscaloosa City Council approved a $400,000 program to aid bars hurt by the pandemic.
ABC Administrator Mac Gipson said the restriction on operating hours was a “business killer” for bars.
While allowing bars to stay open later, the board also approved a new order that Gipson said emphasizes health considerations including 50% occupancy rules, face coverings, social distancing, hand sanitizing and cleaning. The rules are similar to health orders, but the vote gave ABC officials enforcement power.
Violations could be punished with suspension of liquor licenses, he said, but businesses will receive warnings first. Bar owners were involved in developing the new rules, he said.
“They’re conscious of what can happen,” Gipson said during a online meeting.
In Birmingham, where bars, restaurants and breweries offer a range of nighttime entertainment, the county health officer, Dr. Mark Wilson said the state “definitely did the right thing” in July by limiting hours but was justified in making a change following weeks of improvement.
“I think given the fact that we’re doing relatively better now I don’t have strong feelings about it,” said Wilson, who oversees the Jefferson County Health Department. “I think it’s reasonable to sort of see how it goes.”
Meanwhile, state health officials and Gov. Kay Ivey are considering whether to extend a statewide rule that requires face masks in public places for anyone who can’t stay at least 6 feet (2 meters) from others. Ivey has indicated she plans to continue the requirement, which is supported by state hospitals and doctors.
The mask rule is scheduled to expire on Friday. Ivey’s office said the state will begin receiving the first shipment of more than 1 million rapid tests provided by the federal government to detect COVID-19 in coming months.
According to data kept by The Associated Press, there were about 277 new cases of COVID-19 per 100,000 people in Alabama over the past two weeks, which ranks 15th in the country for new cases per capita. The state has seen at least 2,517 virus-related deaths.