MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Thousands of Alabamians are filing for unemployment benefits, sometimes overwhelming the state application system, as the coronavirus pandemic causes workplaces to close temporarily or reduce operations.
Nearly 17,000 people filed unemployment claims over just two days — Sunday and Monday— according to preliminary numbers from Alabama Department of Labor spokeswoman Tara Hutchison.
Health officials have acknowledged the economic cost of mandatory closures but say they're crucial to slow the outbreak as caseloads grow exponentially, threatening to overwhelm hospitals. People can be contagious without showing symptoms and spend days infecting others before falling ill.
“I want to be very clear: This is a matter of life and death," Jefferson County Health Officer Mark Wilson said Sunday in announcing the closures of nonessential businesses in that county.
Despite this, Republican Gov. Kay Ivey said she was following the lead of President Donald Trump and expressed reluctance Tuesday to join other governors in issuing a statewide order shutting down nonessential activities.
“I want to echo the President who today said we have to get back to work. We must do everything we can to keep businesses open and if they are closed, get them back up as soon as possible,” Ivey said.
Alabama's statewide orders include closing beaches and prohibiting on-site restaurant dining and non-work gatherings of more than 25 people where people can't stay 6 feet (2 meters) apart.
Birmingham has issued a “shelter in place” order directing people to stay inside unless going out for food, medicine, exercise or essential services. The city of Tuscaloosa said it would institute a 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew beginning Friday.
Limited testing has shown that Alabama had at least 283 confirmed coronavirus cases as of Wednesday, with 99 of those cases in Jefferson County, according to the Alabama Department of Public Health. Officials at the University of Alabama at Birmingham said UAB hospital was treating at least 90 people with confirmed cases of COVID-19, and more than half of them were on ventilators.
“We have experienced an exponential increase in the number of patients in the last few days," said Dr. Sarah Nafziger, co-chair of the hospital's emergency management committee. “This is a dangerous situation that our community needs to take seriously."
For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death.
No deaths have been blamed on the illness in Alabama.
Most of the unemployment claims were listed as related to the COVID-19 outbreak, Hutchison said, and many of the new cases are believed to be from the hospitality industry. A total of 9,347 claims were filed the week that ended March 20, up from 1,434 claims the previous week that ended March 13. The World Health Organization declared the novel coronavirus a pandemic on March 11.
In Alabama, people either apply by phone line or through the online system. Hutchinson said they are aware that sometimes people have had trouble getting through on the telephone system.
“Patience and understanding are appreciated. Know we hear your concerns and are working to address them,” Hutchinson said. To help the process, the state is waiving charges against employers who file partial unemployment compensation claims on behalf of their employees.