Madison Mayor Finley: Events to Fill Baseball Void at Toyota Field – When Allowed

It might not be Rocket City Trash Pandas baseball, but Toyota Field might soon be hosting events.

That’s according to Madison Mayor Paul Finley, who at Wednesday’s COVID-19 press briefing said, as soon as it’s allowed, plans are to open the new stadium to an array of events.

The Trash Pandas were scheduled to open their first season in Double-A on April 15 before the novel coronavirus intervened. There has been no decision regarding the start or cancelation of the Minor or Major League Baseball seasons.

“Regardless of whether baseball happens, or doesn’t happen, we’re getting ready to start doing a lot of really positive things,’’ Finley said. “A lot of people will be able to come to that venue and use it whether its camps for kids for baseball, whether it’s a wine and cheese festival, whether it’s movies in the park — we’re going to start having events there and doing it in a way that makes good sense when it comes to distancing and sanitation and so forth.’’

Finley also pointed out this is National EMS Week and said for those on the frontlines “we’re very appreciative of what they do.’’

On another note, he said masks would be available for anyone without one who attends graduation ceremonies for James Clemens and Bob Jones at Madison City Stadium on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Huntsville plans to hold graduations June 25-26 at the Von Braun Center’s Propst Arena. Madison County schools have set graduations for July 15-16.

Masks will be required at all ceremonies and distancing will be in practice.

As of late Wednesday, there were 13,052 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the state and 285 in Madison County. There were 522 deaths in Alabama related to the disease and four in the county.

Crestwood Medical Center CEO Dr. Pam Hudson said there were less than 10 patients in local hospitals being treated for the virus.

“We are remaining vigilant,’’ she said. “We’re watching the numbers as the community reopens.’’

Hudson continued to stress social distancing, hand washing, and cleaning heavily used surfaces.

She also said that while stay-at-home orders were in place most people were around 1 to 5 people in a household. Now that people are returning to work, that core group is more like 20 people. That 20, she pointed out, would average around three people in the household so now each worker is exposed to a possible 60 contacts.

“The more we open it the more germs can come our way,’’ she said, “which is why we focus on six feet apart.’’

Hudson also emphasized that all health care facilities are open and urged anyone who is not well to visit the emergency room.

“Don’t stay home if you’re sick,’’ she said. “Don’t delay essential care.’’

 

Redstone Arsenal Showing Resilience in the Time of COVID-19

Last Friday, Gov. Kay Ivey announced a new “Safer at Home” order to replace her March “Stay at Home” order. The new edict relaxed some of the restrictions put into place to help flatten the curve of infection caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Garrison Commander Col. Kelsey Smith

It allowed more businesses to open Monday, as long as they adhere to policies put forth by the CDC, the Alabama Department of Public Health and federal guidelines to ensure the wellness and safety of their customers.

Redstone Arsenal has stood in solidarity with the cities of Huntsville and Madison, and the dozens of communities from which they draw their 40,000-plud daily workforce. They began synchronizing their COVID-19-related policies to mirror those of the communities surrounding them. From six feet apart social distancing to closing all nonessential businesses and activities and enforcing the wearing of face masks when out in public; the arsenal garrison has also kept a watchful eye on hospital treatment capabilities in Huntsville, Athens, and Florence.

Key to their commitment to the people of Huntsville, Redstone Arsenal relies as much on bed space, personal protection equipment, and other mission essential capabilities as the communities that support them.

Redstone Arsenal has about 7.8 million square feet of administrative or office space and the workforce shares common-use space.

What has life been like on Redstone Arsenal, and how will it look beginning May 19 going forward?

“Some of the steps we’ve taken are very similar to what businesses around the community are doing, as well as what the governor has suggested,” said Redstone Arsenal Garrison Commander Col. Kelsey A. Smith. “We did occupational health assessments of our buildings with the intent of spacing people out and creating that six-foot physical distance between people.

“We have gone through with our contracting partners to clean all that workspace and disinfect those areas, and we put up signs that designate when that cubicle or those offices were last cleaned. The idea being to allay workforce concern as they come into work.”

Smith said their intent has been to minimize the workforce’s opportunity to gather in large groups, leading to the closing of all dining facilities except for take-out. MWR (Morale, Welfare, and Recreation Benefits) runs the cafeterias, sports facilities and activities, the Pagano Gym, Redstone Arsenal Links at Redstone golf course, as well as the Automotive Skills Center.

The garrison closed the Auto Skills Center and golf course to minimize their interactions. Golf, Smith said, is a socially distancing sport but, for every person that comes onto the course, there are still 20 people at work who are exposed.

“For me to move workforce out of harm’s way, we minimized the workforce and reduced both ancillary and amenity benefits and trimmed ourselves down to mission essentials,” he said.

“I would tell you that like any businessman or woman, I would certainly like to open up my revenue-generating organizations. But my first job is to protect the health, safety, security and welfare of the population, no matter how much we want to get out and play golf or go bowling.

“Until we see this virus isn’t virulently spreading, and we can actually bring people together in groups of greater than 10 without that happening, I will be reticent to opening up any MWR on the installation.”

He said for essential face-to-face customer service benefits where a customer and an employee come into direct contact and can’t keep a 6-foot distance, they have installed plexiglass shields.

As some restrictions were lifted Monday, Smith said they will begin a conditions-based but methodical four-phase plan to reopening.

“We will provide some goal-setting of increasing to 25 to 35 percent of the population; 40 to 45 percent in phase two; then 60 to 75 percent,” he said. “We may begin restoring ancillary benefits that support our mission-essential functions, but that will depend on our constant monitoring how the virus performs within the entire community.”

He said they are providing some goals for tenants to attain if they need to. Included in those are teleworkers.

“Telework has become much more effectual, especially since we brought some systems onboard for the Army that allow as to be more cooperative at a distance” Smith said. “We may not see the same growth we might have seen before because we can still get the outputs we’re looking for with a more reduced footprint.

“I’m not saying those jobs disappear, but we may be able to see multiple days of telework for an employee versus five days a week on the arsenal.

“What we have laid out is a template for all the tenants based on what the installation can provide, so we’re looking forward to tenants providing us with their growth template. That will allow me to look at the demand so we can produce the capacity to do that.

“We know our workforce is going to go home at night. They are going to go to Lowe’s. They are going to go eat at a restaurant. They may even come onto contact with the virus, so we need to monitor what we consider the enemy – COVID-19 – and make sure we don’t expose too much of the population too quickly.”

Smith said despite Ivey’s most recent statement, he doesn’t expect to see significant growth.

“I wouldn’t expect to see significant growth until we hit phase two and then we may see a 25 percent growth in the number of personnel, we bring on the Arsenal,” he said. “We bring on about 10,000 people now and by phase two, we may see as many as 20,000 individuals trying to come in, but we will work out capacity ahead of time to be able to deal with that throughput.”

He also likes the idea of wearing the masks because it reminds others, they are doing something for a reason.

Cloth face masks will be required at some places, even after reopening, especially to enter the commissary, PX or any of the public facilities, but each entity will have their own restrictions.

“I caution our tenants that all the custodians don’t walk around with every organization’s specific limitations so different buildings may have different restrictions.” he said. “You may require a face mask at our facilities but not at another. On some installations I’ve seen screening stations at the entrances of the installation, in front of the PX and the commissary, et cetera; but we found that to be ineffectual unless it is controlled or administered by a health official, so that would really just cost us additional people.

“If an organization wants to do it, I support it, but we’re not going to provide them the manpower to do it. Our custodians have to be able to get into your building to clean so as long as your organization is in compliance, we are unified on that.”

Meanwhile, construction on the arsenal has continued to soldier on.

“We have (construction) schedules we have to maintain to bring capabilities into play in the future. That means what we do affects a contractor and their ability to come to work,” Smith said.

Construction continues on the FBI facility at Redstone Arsenal.

“The FBI and Redstone projects have not had a slowdown. Contractors are coming onto the installation, they are doing a very good job of screening their own folks, using much the same policies we have: if you are sick, stay at home. Don’t come to work if you think you might have encountered someone infected.”

All the job sites are up and running and you can see it at Redstone Gateway where buildings are continuing to sprout up.

On the secure side, once you enter through Gate 9 on the left, work is continuing. Also, at Gate 9 headed south on the right as drivers gain access to I-565, there is a lot of prep work for more construction activity, and they will be working the last week of May to get it repaved.

He said in many cases, the traffic slowdown has allowed them to take advantage of opportunities to pave roads such as Patton Roade.

“We have closed Gate 3 in the vicinity of Redstone Road to Hays Farm because we didn’t need that access,” Smith said. “That closure has allowed us to do quite a bit of the paving out there, and it looks like the demand doesn’t require us to get back in Gate 3 until mid-May or late May when we’ll be able to complete that.

“I’d like to say the Zierdt Road project has moved forward a lot, but the reduction in traffic has certainly allowed it to continue moving steadily forward.”

Smith said they are tracking the number of COVID-19 cases on the arsenal, but DoD doesn’t allow him to share those numbers because they are reported with the city’s numbers through the Alabama Department of Public Health.

“I can tell you that all but about one-eighth of those we are tracking have recovered, and the remainder of them remain in quarantine,” he said. “None have been hospitalized.

“Something gets lost when you follow the daily ticker tape of the overall numbers. I would like to be able to see alongside those numbers, the recovery rate because that would be helpful and maybe provide some encouragement to the population. We are tracking very closely, the local case rate. If we report today, we have 14 cases, but yesterday we had 20 and tomorrow we only have 10, that signifies what we’re doing is working well.”

Medical Officials Concerned About Disease Affecting Children

An alert has been issued about a rare inflammatory disease that could possibly be related to COVID-19.

The condition — Multi-System Inflammatory Syndrome — so far has only been diagnosed in children. No cases have been found within the state, but Dr. Karen Landers of the Alabama Department of Public Health said her department is monitoring the situation, and alerts have been sent to doctors statewide.

Symptoms of the syndrome include fever and rash. It’s being referred to as a Kawasaki-like disease.

“(Kawasaki) is a disease that is still not well understood in the pediatric medical community, but I saw it early in my career so Kawasaki disease has been around for a long time,’’ Landers said during Friday’s COVID-19 briefing at the Huntsville City Council chambers. “Whether or not it is related to COVID-19 is still to be determined.’’

Kawasaki causes fever, followed by inflammation in blood vessels throughout the body. The condition most often affects kids younger than 5 years old.

“I might just remind parents, and as a pediatrician myself, that in this time we’re focusing on COVID, we do not need to forget routine preventative care is very important,’’ Landers said.

As of Saturday morning, the ADPH website listed 11,389 confirmed cases of COVID-19 statewide and 274 in Madison County. There were 23 deaths overnight Friday to bring the total to 485, while the death toll in the county remained at four.

Last week, Huntsville Hospital CEO David Spillers said six coronavirus cases were confirmed at the Fever and Flu Clinic but said he didn’t know if all were county residents. Spillers said it was the highest number of positive results in “about 30 days.’’

“We’re not panicking over that,’’ he said. “We all knew when we opened up the economy we would see more positive cases. I think that’s inevitable.’’

In the first week after Gov. Kay Ivey gave the green light to re-open the economy, Spillers said Huntsville Hospital did 1,500 elective surgeries and expected the same amount next week.

He also said Huntsville Hospital and Crestwood Medical Center would maintain restrictions on the number of visitors for each patient and everyone would be required to wear a mask.

He also had words of caution as people try to find some normalcy.

“We need to be careful,’’ he said.

Meanwhile, Madison County Commission Chairman Dale Strong continued to stress maintaining safe health practices such as wearing a mask, hand sanitizing, and social distancing. He said the turnout to county offices since re-opening has doubled.

“We’re thankful to those that have patiently waited in line and for following our new safety protocols,” Strong said. “They are working well.”

The COVID-19 Endgame: Questions & Analysis From UAH Business School

Huntsville is accustomed to goal-oriented missions.

When it was determined that our healthcare system could be overwhelmed by a surge in COVID-19 patients in North Alabama, Madison County residents and business owners took unprecedented steps to follow state and federal guidelines for social distancing. They closed their businesses and sheltered at home to help flatten the curve against exposure to the virus.

Beijing factory workers maintain social distancing during lunch breaks.

Under all discernible yet cautious reporting, COVID-19 cases seem to be waning and our hospitals seem to be buffered against the threat.

Mission accomplished. Goals achieved.

But this mission is different from any other. At what costs have we seen success? What does an economic recovery following this pandemic look like? When will it occur? How long will it take to get back to “normal”? Will there ever be a “normal” or will it change us forever?

These are the questions posed to Wafa Hakim Orman, Associate Dean for Undergraduate Programs at the College of Business & Associate Professor of Economics and Computational Analysis at the University of Alabama in Huntsville this week during a teleconference call with the Huntsville-Madison Chamber of Commerce.

“Economically, things are very bad right now,” said Orman “The problem is our normal indicator models don’t do us much good because they are monthly or quarterly.”

For instance, the national labor force is around 164 million. Before the pandemic started, unemployment was about 3.5 percent. The April unemployment rate was 14.7 percent.

Compared to the financial crisis of 2008, this is off the charts. Even when compared it to the Great Depression of 1929, unemployment was high, but the fall-off was gradual, not all at once.

“The country has never seen anything like it. It is completely unprecedented,” said Orman. “There are however some alternative indicators available if we look for them and one of those is electricity demand.

“The Department of Energy provides hourly indicators on electricity demand and you can tell if commercial establishments are shutting down because electricity use will be lower. Based on up-to-the-minute indicators provided by University of Chicago economist Steve Cicala, electricity use has plummeted, and this information has been adjusted to allow for temperature, weather patterns, and holidays.”

Electricity demand should be at the February average of 2 percent. After March 15, it dropped precipitously to nearly -8 percent.

“I did a similar analysis for the areas covered by the Tennessee Valley Authority, because that’s the smallest scale at which we can get this electricity data for our region, and the results are very similar,” she said.

Another alternative source of data comes from a website called Homebase.com.

“They provide timesheets and scheduling software and they have very helpfully made aggregates of what they’re seeing available on their website,” Orman said. “You can see the impact on local business from their customer base looking at hours worked. Again, we see a sharp decline, and when you look at it by industry, this provides us with something I think we should be paying a lot of attention to as we think about reopening.”

Orman believes the businesses that are seeing the biggest declines are likely to be those people will be the most reluctant to go back to after reopening.

“As an economist, what we have is essentially a major shock to aggregate demand,” she said. “And it creates this tension. We need to save lives by shutting down, but we also face terrible consequences from the economic shutdown. Increases in unemployment, increases in poverty, and all the negatives we know are associated with recessions, are really intensified in a short period of time right now.”

While the number appear to be flattening the curve and social distancing seems to have been a successful strategy for slowing the spread of the virus, the long-term effects are unknown. Orman however presents some ideas for discussion.

“And it is completely implausible that we just wait for some bell to ring that tells us the virus is no longer a threat. That is impossible. It will have to be a phased reopening but how does that unfold?” she asks.

She admits a slow, limping back to normal over a prolonged period is difficult to assess at this point because IF we begin to reopen the economy to some non-essential businesses, we risk seeing another spike in infections and that will be bad news that affects further openings.

And there are yet other considerations equally as concerning.

“What businesses will people actually go back to and what businesses are likely to continue to suffer, even after we reopen,” she said. “Looking at data from Homebase.com, home and repair and transportation don’t involve much contact so people will probably be quite happy to see those reopen.”

Orman believes there will be some pent-up demand with people stuck in their houses for a couple of months. They will want to go to a restaurant, buy things they have been needing or wanting, take a hiking trip, go camping, or attend a social gathering at a local venue. People will be able to get a leak in their roof fixed or plant their spring garden, but what about professional services?

She points out it may be a while before people are comfortable with touching gym equipment someone else has been using; getting a manicure, a massage, or even a haircut because it requires a lot of personal contact with another person.

“And what about the food and beverage industry,” she asks. “We’re talking about opening restaurants, but they will have to deal with capacity. They still will not be able to employ as many workers as they did before, leaving some unemployed.”

During the pandemic, automation and teleconferencing has replaced in-person contact so although many industries have been using self-checkout counters and teleconferencing software as a back-up, how many jobs will be lost to fully-automated services; how much business travel will be cut in lieu of online meetings; and how many office jobs will move to telework?

There is also a question mark concerning education.

“Students are being forced to adapt to online learning, including elementary school and kindergarten. Those that can move online, have done so, but education at the lower grade levels like kindergarten through 12th grade may be online this semester; but what happens to other educational activities like afterschool programs, sports, tutoring, music, and extracurricular activities like summer camp?

Subway passengers maintain social distancing.

“How long will it be before people are comfortable sitting in a crowded movie theater, attending a concert, or other events that involve large numbers of people in one place,” she poses.

She will not be surprised if relatively high unemployment remains for a while as people don’t get rehired such as teachers aides, personal trainers, and extra restaurant workers.

Orman said at that point, unemployed workers will continue to be a drag on GDP.

“By fall, that’s starting to get far enough in the future that although difficult to predict, I think the best we can do is an optimistic scenario and a pessimistic scenario,” she said.

“In the optimistic scenario, our healthcare system can put in place widespread contact tracing and widespread testing, so if someone is diagnosed, we treat them and everybody they’ve been in contact with. Those people are quarantined but everybody else can go back to normal.

In that scenario she said it is also possible to develop the so-called herd immunity – that once enough people have the coronavirus, it is not such a problem anymore.

“Most businesses open, and we can realistically hope hiring and spending start to increase. This is happening in China where they are experiencing a V-shaped recovery for manufacturing that’s taking off but again, tourism and personal service industries are much, much slower.”

In the pessimistic scenario, she said we do not yet have widespread contact tracing and testing and the virus spikes back up. In this scenario it will be like the 1918 influenza virus that started out relatively mild in the spring of 1918, then surged with a vengeance in the fall of that year.

“Pandemics and epidemics have throughout history, resulted in big long-term changes to society and I wouldn’t be surprised if we don’t see the same with this one,” said Orman. “And how soon economic recovery takes place depends on what American society is willing to live with.”

That requires compliance.

“This is a free country. We prize our freedoms, so will we submit to required testing on a regular basis, or being told you need to be in quarantine because of someone you’ve been in contact with has contracted the disease and you need to be quarantined for two weeks, even if you’re not feeling sick?

“I think some people will and some people won’t. Initially there will be a strong sense of public spiritedness so people will comply, but eventually people will get tired of it, so compliance will probably be an issue.”

And will widespread mask-wearing make sense, and will people comply with it? Orman said it’s hard to see how it won’t become standard at this point, but how will people feel about it in the long-term?”

Orman shared three very telling images from China taken after they reopened their economy.

The differences are stark of Chinese factory workers maintaining 6-foot social distancing while enjoying lunch at a manufacturing plant looks more like an image from a prison.

One image shows a sparsely populated subway in Beijing with passengers sitting 6 feet apart in a car that is usually very crowded.

And perhaps the most telling picture of all – a wedding, where aside from the bride and groom, everyone in the wedding party, including the photographer, are wearing masks.

After seeing these images – to what extent are people going to be comfortable with this and for how long?

“These are still the probing questions,” Orman said.

Speaking from Experience, Astronaut Hoot Gibson on Living Through Quarantines and Confined Spaces

Up until now, he was one of only a handful of people on Earth who knows what it feels like to go through self-quarantine, and live with other people in a small, confined space for more than five weeks.

Retired NASA astronaut and Navy pilot Robert “Hoot” Gibson was a bit puckish with his opening advice to the Huntsville-Madison County Chamber of Commerce on a teleconference this week.

“Hoot” Gibson experienced quarantine and cramped quarters while flying on five space shuttle missions. (Photo courtesy UAH)

“Well, we had a big advantage once we got into orbit,” he said. “We were flying at zero gravity or weightlessness so when the floor got cluttered, we just floated to the upper deck. When your floor at home gets cluttered with too many people and their stuff, just fly over the top … okay, okay, that is not meant to be serious,” he said to laughter.

A resident of Murfreesboro, Tenn., and still a familiar face at Space Camp graduations, Gibson is no stranger to living in close quarters. He flew five space shuttle missions and spent 36 days with up to seven astronauts in the tight quarters of the shuttle.

Vice President of Communications for the Chamber Claire Aiello asked him about his experiences then and now as people find themselves confined to home for the first time during the coronavirus pandemic.

“We really did have an advantage in that a crew is formed months before launch and we trained together for a year, knew each other very well by the time we actually went into space, we knew exactly what we were going to face, and we had experience with the tight confines of the space shuttle,” he said.

“On three of my five missions, we had 8 feet by 15 feet on the upper deck, and on the lower deck, we had about 15 feet by 15 feet. Two of my missions, we did not have the Spacelab, which gave us double that much room, about 5,000 square feet, so comparatively speaking, we had a lot of room.

“But if I think back on it, the mission where I would say, ‘How in the world did we not strangle each other?’, that was my second mission. There were seven of us aboard and we only had the flight deck and the mid-deck, 2,500 square feet for all of us to live in.”

He said being in space was easier that preparing for it in the simulator because they couldn’t fly and couldn’t use the ceiling.

“Knowing and expecting that you’re going to be hampered in your mobility around people is probably one of the biggest parts of it,” Gibson said. “You realize and understand you’re going to be all over each other, so I guess training and experience are things that always carry the day.”

He said containing the coronavirus has been a challenge for most because few people have ever been quarantined at all and in the case of COVID-19, there was little time to prepare before they were asked to self-quarantine with no previous knowledge or experience doing it.

“Again, as a crew we had the advantage of going into quarantine seven days before we launched,” Gibson said. “That kept us away from anyone who could give us the flu or any kind of disease. And anyone who came within 15 feet of one us, would have had to have passed a physical by one of our NASA flight surgeons.”

He said he never flew a mission where anyone had a cold or flu outbreak, or any illness at all.

“And then there is your own personal attitude toward it,” said Gibson. “We never had a crew member who was grumpy or difficult to work with, or who said, ‘I need all these people out of my hair’, you know. We never heard anything like that, so I think attitude is probably the biggest part.”

He said a thankful attitude helps too, in which they are going into quarantine because that’s what it will take to protect them and the people with whom they come into contact.

“We have all been self-quarantining everywhere, trying to stay six feet apart and I think it has for the most part worked,” Gibson said.

The lessons of aerospace he said are training, simulation, preparation, having a plan, and executing the plan.

“We had a saying in flight-testing: plan the flight and fly the plan and don’t deviate,” Gibson said. “I say the more rigorous we are, the more adherence to the plan we can do, and the better off we are going to be. It has paid off (so far) and it works.

Gibson in the cockpit of the Space Shuttle Discovery. (NASA Photo)

“Things that work are good. That is the attitude to take toward it.”

Gibson said his family and neighbors have obeyed the stay at home orders, but they are getting a little more ambitious. A doctor in the neighborhood suggested bringing their own folding chairs and having 5 o’clock Happy Hour – six feet apart. Gibson has even hosted one himself.

“Cautious optimism is where I’m headed in the days ahead,” he said. “But another thing we have been sure to do is order food from local restaurants to help keep them in business. Panera Bread delivers and there are others where you drive there and pick it up.

“One restaurant we go to said to us, ‘Thank goodness for the people in Murfreesboro!’ He initially laid-off all of his employees, but because of the support he is getting from people here in town, he’s hired back five of them, so I think we can all help.”

Responding to a question about 5:00 Happy Hour in the cul-de-sac compared to 5:00 in the cockpit of a spacecraft, Gibson quips, “We weren’t supposed to have cocktails in orbit and of course I never did – unless you count that thing with the Russians … but that’s a whole other story!”

Speaking of Russians … he was asked whether it was true that he helped end the Cold War.

“When we docked with the Russian Space station Mir, it was 1995 and only the second international docking, 20 years after the Apollo Soyuz docking in 1975,” said Gibson. “When we arrived, the protocol was that I would shake hands with the Mir commander. I was the Space Shuttle commander, and so the plan was the two of us would shake hands in the hatch,

“I opened the hatch and shook hands with Russian Air Force Col. Vladimir Dezhurov. He had been a Russian fighter pilot training to shoot down and kill me all those years I was trained to shoot down and kill him. That day, President Bill Clinton made the comment, ‘Well I guess this means the Cold War is over.’

“I tell everyone I ended the Cold War – it’s a little bit of a joke!”

Chamber President Chip Cherry asked about a picture on Gibson’s desk of an F-4 Phantom II fighter jet.

“What was your favorite plane to fly?” asked Cherry.

Gibson gives a ‘thumbs up’ in the Tomcat. (NASA Photo)

“Initially, I flew the F-4 in Vietnam, and flew two cruises over the Coral Sea in it. After the Phantom, I flew the first F-14 Tomcat and of course that’s the airplane that was in the movie ‘Top Gun,’” Gibson said. “It could do everything the Phantom could do and, at the time, the Phantom was the world’s best all-around fighter plane.

“When the Tomcat came out, it could do everything the Phantom could do 15 to 20 percent better, so it was a superior airplane and it should have been. It had 15 years of evolution over the Phantom.

“Both were a lot of fun. Flying jet fighters was really something!”

No one on the call could resist asking – where did he get his call sign “Hoot” Gibson?

“I joined a squadron aboard the aircraft carrier USS Coral Sea in 1972,” he said. “I was a new guy and the operations officer looked at me and said, “Hey kid. You got a nickname?’

“My real name is Robert, so I said, ‘Yes sir, it’s Bob.’

“He said, ‘No, no, no, come on. You need a real nickname.’

“I said, ‘Well, occasionally I’ve been called Hoot after the rodeo champion and silent movie star cowboy.’

Gibson in his NASA T-38 aircraft. (UAH Photo)

“From that moment on, April 1972, I’ve been ‘Hoot’ Gibson. It went on the canopy of my airplane, on my coffee cup, and Hoot Gibson was sewn onto my flight suit.”

On April 17, NASA astronauts Jessica Meir and Drew Morgan, and Russian cosmonaut Oleg Skripochka returned to Earth after nearly a year on the International Space Station. They returned to an Earth where people are wearing masks and where they have been living in a sort of quarantine.

What does Hoot Gibson think it is like for them?

“I’m sure Mission Control has told them all about what’s going on, and what life is like back here on Earth,” Gibson said. “I suspect they’re going to be a bit dismayed because they’re not going to be quite prepared for what they’re going to see because it’s far more dramatic than it comes across to you by someone explaining it to you.

“When you come back from space, it’s always such a joyous celebration with everybody enthusiastically hugging everybody and shaking hands. They’re not going to get any of that, so it’s going to be a little bit of a letdown I’m sure after the experience of flying in space, which is pretty spectacular.”

MAPCO Donates 2,400 N95 Masks to HEMSI

In its latest effort to combat the spread of COVID-19, MAPCO donated 2,400 N95 masks Tuesday to HEMSI.

While adhering to social distancing protocols, first responders from Huntsville’s Fire & Rescue Department and HEMSI retrieved the donation from MAPCO team members at their new store at 11821 South Memorial Parkway.

“This generous donation will help protect our first responders as they continue to help those in need,” said Mayor Tommy Battle. “The N95 masks give our frontline workers the ability to do their jobs with the protective equipment they need. On behalf of the City of Huntsville and its residents, we thank MAPCO for their partnership in helping us combat COVID-19.”

The donation of 2,400 N95 respirator masks to HEMSI is part of MAPCO’s continuous commitment to the communities it serves. MAPCO has some 344 stores throughout the Southeast.

“We are proud to partner with HEMSI to provide Huntsville first responders with these invaluable supplies to protect them as they risk their lives on the front lines,” says Frederic Chaveyriat, company CEO. “MAPCO has been a part of the Huntsville community for many years, and we now have eleven stores serving the city. We are committed to keeping our guests, team members and communities as safe as possible during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

MAPCO stores continue to operate during the COVID-19 pandemic as essential businesses, and all locations have implemented rigorous and frequent cleaning and disinfecting processes while closely following the latest information and guidelines from local, state and federal government agencies and health organizations. Plexiglass shields have been installed in every store and masks, gloves and hand sanitizer have been provided to all team members.

Additionally, to support social distancing efforts, store occupancy has been limited and MAPCO has placed physical in-store indicators on floors to support appropriate distancing. All seating areas are closed, and food orders are to-go only for the time being.

National Cyber Summit is Postponed to Next Year

This year’s National Cyber Summit has been postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It has been rescheduled for June 8-10, 2021.

“The NCS organization has been faced with a very difficult decision regarding our 2020 Summit,” said NCS Executive Director Judy Darwin. “I’m sad to share that we have decided to postpone this year’s National Cyber Summit. For the safety and well-being of our attendees and exhibitors, as well as preserving the unprecedented networking opportunities NCS provides, we believe this is the best decision.”

In her statement, Darwin said the organization is ready and excited about the opportunities next year.

“… with unfortunate circumstances comes great opportunity,” she said. “We are excited to take this time to create an unparalleled 2021 Summit, offering unique educational, collaborative and workforce development opportunities for cyber industry visionaries and rising leaders.”

 

Talk of Reopening Local Businesses Gains Steam

With the number of confirmed novel coronavirus cases in Madison County flattening the curve, talk of reopening business is growing steam.

The number of positive tests for COVID-19 was the same Saturday — 205 — as it was Thursday. That figure was 198 to start the week. The number of deaths in the county related to the virus — four — also held steady.

Madison County Commission Chair Dale Strong said preparations are being made to reopen whenever Gov. Kay Ivey lifts the stay-at-home order but said it would be a gradual process. The order expires Thursday.

“When it is lifted, this is not the green flag at the Talladega 500 where everyone comes out with the gas pedal mashed to the floor, trying to recoup,” Strong said during the most recent virus briefing at the Huntsville City Council chambers.

Strong said when county offices opened safety procedures — using hand sanitizers, wearing gloves and face masks and practicing social distancing — will still be stressed. County employees will be required to work six feet apart.

“This is not a switch we’re going to flip an everything suddenly returns to normal,” Strong said. “Everything we’re doing now, from social distancing, wearing a face covering and not gathering in large groups, is our new normal.”

Earlier in the week, Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle said whenever the reopening occurs it will happen gradually for businesses such as restaurants.

“At this time right now we’re looking at a possible phased reopening,’’ Battle said. “Maybe 25 percent capacity, then 50 percent capacity, then 100 percent capacity. We don’t know exactly what the governor’s orders are going to have in it. We expect the governor’s orders within the week.

“We’re going to be walking a very fine line. The fine line is how we reopen our economy and re-open our businesses, and how we keep our public safe. That’s a very fine line to walk. We know we’ll have some additional cases.’’

Crestwood Medical Center CEO Dr. Pam Hudson said an increase in positive tests will be unavoidable.

“There’s been a lot of conversation about when we start to open up again and what happens when we see a spike in cases, which we will. What we’re trying to avoid is an uncontrollable spike in cases.’’

For now, she said, she believes the county is “already in the containment phase. There’s no particular line of demarcation but with the continued downward trend in hospitalizations.’’

Dr. Karen Landers with the Alabama Department of Public Health said they were investigating each case of COVID-19 and are doing contact tracing, a method of identifying people the person with the virus has been in contact with by using all ADHP employees with experience with tracing.

“We are working on expanding the contact investing pool by using pre-med medical students,’’ she said.

As of Saturday, the ADPH listed 6,137 confirmed cases and 212 deaths from the virus.

Area Hospitality Industry Weathering COVID-19 Storm

It officially began with a health order from the state March 20.

That’s when all on-premise consumption of food and beverages in restaurants and bars had been officially banned.

Then, Gov. Kay Ivey’s “Stay at Home order” followed on April 4 thus further delineating “essential” versus “nonessential” businesses.

One thing that is certain since COVID-19 is uncertainty. Since mid-March, there have been a lot of mandates with the information changing daily, perhaps even hourly in some instances.

Over the past few years, Huntsville and Madison County have been experiencing exponential growth in lodging, dining, and beverage establishments.

However, COVID-19 has been quite the game changer, for both seasoned and new businesses alike.

Although the order was scheduled to end April 30, it is anyone’s guess as to the long-term impact and what Huntsville-Madison County’s version of the “new normal” will be.

Many people do not immediately consider North Alabama as a tourist destination.

However, in 2018, there were roughly 3.35 million visitors to Madison County and more than $1.4 billion generated by tourism.

“We receive information on an annual basis from the Alabama Tourism Department,” said Charles Winters, executive vice president at Huntsville/Madison County Convention & Visitors Bureau. “As far as estimated visitors to our county, their estimation of economic impact of all types of visitors; that’s business travelers, convention attendees, all the folks who come into our community.

In North Alabama alone, tourism-generated dollars are tied to a multitude of capital improvements, as well as an estimated 20,000 jobs in the hospitality-service industry sector.

With the “Stay at Home” order, businesses cut back their hours and services, which translated into fewer employees being needed. Many have been furloughed, laid off, or flat-out terminated.

As a result of COVID-19 and assorted mandates, varying from state-to-state, the hospitality industry has been hit particularly hard, with estimates as high as 7 million jobs lost or furloughed at the national level.

Although restaurants have been deemed “essential” and can still offer curbside or window pickup, as well as a variety of delivery and pickup options, not all restaurants have decided to keep their doors open.

“Due to COVID-19, Grille 29 Huntsville is temporarily closed,” said Regina Burnett, director of catering sales. “We are unsure of a return date at this time.”

The layoffs and furloughs serve as a double-whammy for the already personnel-strapped hospitality sector.

“As an industry, we’ve been growing exponentially here in Huntsville,” said Jennifer Middleton, director of sales at Candlewood Suites Huntsville-Research Park. “Workforce has been a huge issue for everybody, especially the hospitality industry.”

As the area growth ensued, local industry leaders addressed the issue by getting involved in tech programs, culinary programs at area high schools, along with assorted job fairs, all designed to bring attention to showcasing hospitality and service industry jobs as variable career options.

“Then, overnight, this work that we have been promoting as one of the best industries to work in – it comes to a halt,” said Middleton. “It’s just sad, for us to come from one place to another where we were in desperate need and, now, we have too many and not enough demand.”

In response, the Huntsville-Madison County Hospitality Association board took action. Using social media, the association contacted its members, letting them know that resource information had been posted on its Facebook site. A Facebook public group site titled, “HSV Food To Go Options (COVID 19)” was also created so people can find out what restaurants are open along with ways the community can help do their part to boost the hospitality industry.

“On a positive a note, we can promote ourselves as one of the best industries to work in because, as an industry, you can see how resourceful we are,” said Middleton. “We say this all the time, amongst ourselves, that we are one big family.

“And we’re passionate about serving people and especially about taking care of our own.”

Crestwood CEO: What We’re Doing, What You’re Doing, is Working

Universal Source Control.

That’s the new buzz phrase coming from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) regarding the novel coronavirus COVID-19.

Crestwood Medical Center CEO Dr. Pam Hudson said that was a “fancy way to say, ‘We can’t tell who all has it, we might each have it ourselves. If we all put a mask on, we’re going to significantly reduce the virus’ ability to be passed back and forth.’ ’’

Hudson, joining Madison County Commission Chair Dale Strong at the daily COVID-19 briefing at the Huntsville City Council chambers, said the CDC issued a statement declaring cloth masks as the best option concerning personal protection equipment (PPE). They should be kept clean and dry.

“Wear a mask and keep your virus from me,’’ she said.

Hudson also said a current model shows the virus peaking in the state April 23.

Madison County statistics regarding COVID-19 are positive.

  • Of the 4,043 confirmed cases statewide, as of early Wednesday, only 191, just three more than what was reported Monday, have been within county borders with three deaths of the state’s verified 116. Jefferson and Mobile counties have both reported 17 deaths and two other counties are in double digits.
  • In two weeks, Madison County, the state’s third-largest, has gone from having the second-most confirmed cases behind Jefferson County to fourth and now sixth.
  • A model that earlier projected 8,000 deaths in Alabama from the has gone down first to 634 and recently to 450.
  • Between Crestwood and Huntsville Hospital’s facilities, eight people are hospitalized with the virus and 21 have been discharged.

“So far, so good,’’ Hudson said of Madison County. “We’re on a solid track to claim success in flattening the curve.

“It doesn’t mean we have beaten COVID, it just means what we’re doing, what you’re doing, is working.’’

Strong said plans are being worked out as the discussion for reopening business is in the works. Finley said Gov. Kay Ivey is holding conference calls with mayors to gather information about reopening.

That date is still in question.

Earlier in the week, Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle said when it does happen it might have to come in “waves.’’

“We have a team of people in the city who is already looking at that and looking at how we would reopen,” Battle said. “We don’t know if it will be in one week, two weeks, three weeks, or six weeks. But we do know at some point we’ll re-open, we want to make sure we’re ahead of the game when we do.”

While the governor determines when the state will reopen, local governments will determine how it unfolds.

“It will be our job to define who opens up and how quickly,’’ Battle said. “That’s usually left to the local governments, it will be our job to enforce it as we go through it.”

Hudson warned against not wearing PPE and observing the six-foot social distancing rule would be a mistake even with talk of reopening escalating.

“Where one graduation party, one funeral, one wedding, one gathering where people aren’t careful away from having a spike in cases,’’ she said.

“We’re nowhere close to declaring victory,’’ Strong said.