Recent editorials from Alabama newspapers:
The Decatur Daily and The TimesDaily on celebrating Halloween amid the coronavirus pandemic:
This Saturday is Halloween.
Normally, Halloween falling on a Saturday — a Saturday with a full moon, even! — would be cause of extra celebration.
Then the new coronavirus changed everything, and Halloween isn’t the only celebration affected. COVID-19 will change how and if families gather for Thanksgiving, and it will change how we celebrate Christmas this year as well.
Already, some communities, like Muscle Shoals, have canceled their planned Christmas parades. For the first time in 160 years, Santa will not hold court in Macy’s department stores, which started the tradition of having children sit on Santa’s lap and assure the Jolly Old Elf that they’d all be good little boys and girls and should definitely get a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas. That tradition doesn’t fit with the requirements of social distancing.
Yet some holiday activities are pressing on, in an attempt to maintain some aspects of normality in this most abnormal of times.
Arx Mortis, the Shoals area’s top-rated annual haunted attraction is open, although with limited capacity and safety requirements. But one of the biggest Halloween events — the Highland Park Baptist Church of Muscle Shoals’ annual Fallout Festival, has been cancelled. And no area communities have officially banned trick-or-treating, although we expect the number of trick-or-treaters will be down, as will the number of homes with their inviting porch lights turned on.
One thing many of these events have in common is they’re requiring people to wear masks. There is strong evidence masks save lives and decrease the prevalence of COVID-19 symptoms.
Health officials continue to stress, there is a strong correlation between reported mask use and observed COVID symptoms. The correlation fits with the best science we now have.
There are echoes in this of how Halloween began, long ago back in Celtic lands, when it was called Samhain, and then later, All Hallows Eve. People then wore masks and costumes in order to disguise themselves from evil spirits who might mean them harm.
Like many other old celebrations that voyaged to America, Halloween became domesticated along the way. Now people wear masks at Halloween for fun. So, it is ironic that a new threat — a threat recognized by science rather than superstition — has people again wearing masks, not for fun, but for safety.
Which brings us to how we will celebrate Halloween this year. Many families will likely stay home and perhaps gather around the TV for some scary movies. Some, however, will venture out, and that means putting safety first.
There are the usual safety tips, such as wearing reflecting clothing, watching out for traffic, and not eating any candy that doesn’t come wrapped.
But this year those precautions come with concerns about washing your hands, keeping your distance from others, and, of course, wearing a mask.
You may want to simply avoid informal holiday parties that involve lots of people and lots of eating and drinking. Such parties have turned into potent super-spreaders for COVID.
If we keep COVID precautions in mind, we can celebrate the holiday while keeping the scares merely fictional.
The Dothan Eagle on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on schools, and expanding internet access in Alabama:
As the coronavirus pandemic stretched from spring into summer and toward fall, there was much debate about how schools would deliver instruction. Some had finished the previous school year with take-home packets and internet-based teaching, but much of the discussion over the summer focused on how to safely bring students back into the classroom.
Another concern was the safety of faculty and staff — adults who may have existing health concerns that could increase their likelihood of developing life-threatening illness if exposed to the coronavirus. In the first few weeks on classroom instruction this fall, administrators have discovered that particular challenge may have been underestimated.
The number of students becoming infected with COVID-19 has been relatively low, which comes as a relief. However, schools across the state have had to shut down for a period because of the impact on faculty and staff. When teachers are absent from the classroom while under quarantine from possible exposure, administrators find that a shortage of substitutes make those slots difficult to fill. Without adequate teachers to maintain classroom instruction, several schools have shut down and shifted instruction to online platforms.
This unexpected wrinkle in the educational plan makes efforts to expand internet accessibility across the state even more urgent. Government and school officials must recognize that the delivery of instruction may well be forever changed, and make development of infrastructure for virtual learning a top priority.
The Decatur Daily on a lawsuit filed by the newspaper against an Alabama county’s 911 board:
The decision by The Decatur Daily to sue the Morgan County 911 board for public records was not made casually.
The lawsuit filed last week asks the court for an order requiring the board to turn over the 911 transcripts involved in two incidents, including a March 15 incident at a Sixth Avenue liquor store in which Decatur police punched and tackled the store’s owner, breaking his jaw.
Police, who arrived after a friend of the owner called 911 about a shoplifting attempt, say the store owner appeared to be wielding a gun. The store owner says 911 was informed he had a gun to detain the shoplifter until police arrived, in part because he feared the shoplifter was armed. The owner also claims, and security video appears to confirm, that he had unloaded the handgun and placed it on the shop counter well before he was punched and taken to the floor.
The store owner was charged with misdemeanor obstruction of justice, and he has threatened a lawsuit against the city of Decatur.
Alabama’s laws on public records are riddled with exceptions and hurdles, monuments to the implicit belief among many public officials that the citizens that employ them are a meddlesome inconvenience. State law does, however, unambiguously require that emergency communications districts, such as Morgan 911, turn over requested 911 transcripts.
Many states classify the audio of 911 calls as public records. An Alabama law specifically states the audio is not a public record. The law, however, arrives at a compromise that avoids the raw emotion that sometimes comes via audio but maintains a level of transparency. While citizens have no right to the audio, they do have a right to the written transcript of that 911 call. The law specifies that “any written or electronic record detailing the circumstances, response, or other events related to a 911 call … shall be deemed a public writing … .”
The city of Decatur pays $420,000 a year to Morgan 911, the local emergency communications district, and with that money it has obtained leverage. The contract between the city and Morgan 911 includes this provision: “In the event (Morgan 911) receives any request for public records concerning Decatur, (Morgan 911) shall provide Decatur with a copy of any such request prior to the release of the requested records and give Decatur at least 72 hours to object.”
Morgan 911 has treated this contractual provision as giving the city of Decatur absolute veto power over the public’s statutory right to obtain 911 transcripts. Morgan 911 rejected The Daily’s repeated requests for transcripts in the liquor store case and a triple homicide despite the clear language of the statute, noting only that the city of Decatur objected to production of the transcripts based on a “pending criminal case and pending civil litigation.”
The common-sense problem with these objections in the liquor store case is that the city of Decatur has already turned over the 911 transcripts to the store owner and his lawyer. The city is not hiding the documents from the person who is the target of its investigation and who has threatened litigation. It is, rather, hiding the potentially embarrassing transcript from the public.
From a legal standpoint, the state Open Records Act contains no exception for the city’s “pending civil litigation” claim. And transcripts do not become “investigative” simply because someone in law enforcement may be referencing them in order to pursue a criminal matter. If that were the case, any number of public records would be made confidential simply because a law enforcement officer was using them as part of an investigation. For example, if the police were investigating a city official for embezzlement, the officers could claim that city budgets, unquestionably public records, are now confidential because the budgets evidence the crime. This cannot be a correct interpretation of the Open Records law.
The Daily does not lightly file lawsuits, both because of the expense to us and the potential expense to taxpayers. But we do take seriously our mission to inform the public, and our role as a watchdog over public officials. We wish that those officials who serve the public would embrace transparency, rather than shun it.