MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Gov. Kay Ivey and health officials extended an order requiring face masks in public Wednesday, arguing that the requirement — while unpopular among many — has proven effective at helping control the state's coronavirus outbreak.
The five-week extension, announced during a Capitol news conference, means the mask requirement will be in effect on Election Day and through much of the remaining high school and college football seasons.
Ending the mask ordinance could harm the state by leading to a "false sense of security," Ivey said, and a "safe environment" is needed for in-person voting.
The mask rule, which took effect in mid-July, was set to expire Friday but will continue through Nov. 8 under a health order released by Ivey. It requires anyone over the age of 6 to wear masks in indoor public spaces and outdoors when it's impossible to stay at least 6 feet (2 meters) away from others.
In a move aimed at combatting isolation among people in nursing homes and hospitals, residents and patients will now be allowed one visitor or caregiver at a time.
More than 2,500 people in Alabama have died of COVID-19, according to researchers from Johns Hopkins University, giving the state the nation's 21st high death count. Alabama has reported 153,554 positive results out of 1.1 million tests for an overall positivity rate of 13.7%, according to the COVID Tracking Project.
But the illness caused by the new coronavirus has spread at a slower pace since the state enacted the mask rule, statistics show, and hospitalizations have fallen to less than half of the high reached in July and August when the virus was spreading rapidly through the state.
"The fact is ... our mask ordinance is working," Ivey said.
Speaking before Ivey's announcement, the head of the health agency in the state's most populous area, Jefferson County, said the mask requirement had helped tamp down the disease.
"Things are better than they were before that order was issued, and we'd like to keep it that way. But things are still not great," said Dr. Mark Wilson, Jefferson County's health officer.
Health officials said a mask order could be needed at least through early 2021 or even longer depending on when an effective vaccine could be widely distributed and whether new effective treatments can be developed.
A lawsuit filed by failed U.S. Senate candidate and former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore seeks to overturn the order, which he claims is unconstitutional. Critics of the order include Lt. Gov. Will Ainsworth, who argues that facial coverings should be voluntary, not mandatory.