Alabama Family Without Face Coverings Denied Entry to Storm Shelter during Tornado

Easter Storm
(illustrative)

A family in Alabama said they were denied entry to a storm shelter on Easter Sunday during a severe storm because they didn’t have enough face masks during the coronavirus pandemic.

More than 30 people were killed in a two-day period as severe storms tore across the South, leaving 1 million homes without power.

The family from Crossville, Ala., a town of about 1,800 located about 80 miles northeast of Birmingham, said they were not allowed into their community storm shelter on Sunday due to not having enough face masks amid COVID-19 pandemic.

“The guy actually opened the door, he motioned, ‘do you have a mask?’ I held up one mask. I said, ‘I have one mask, I can put it on the child.’ He motioned ‘no’ and shut the door,” a woman who wished to remain anonymous told WHNT.

The family did not want their identities revealed because they didn’t want to cause trouble in their small town. The television station reported they left the shelter in the pouring rain, then drove off in their car.

“Actually, twice trying to get somewhere, we nearly wrecked,” one woman in the family told WHNT. “I just wanted to squall all the way home. I had to keep it together, you know?”

The National Weather Service (NWS) office in Huntsville said a tornado struck the nearby town of Boaz, about 11 miles from Crossville. That storm was an EF-2 tornado with winds of up to 132 mph. It damaged more than 50 homes as it traveled over nine miles.

NWS meteorologist Jason Holmes told The Gadsden Times that no fatalities were reported, but there were some injuries and destroyed homes.

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey issued an emergency order Sunday temporarily suspending state restrictions imposed because of coronavirus, if those restrictions interfered with people’s safety as strong storms blew through the region.

“On this Easter Sunday, Alabama faces the potential for inclement weather, and we want all Alabama families to be prepared for whatever comes our way,” the Republican governor said in a statement.

Ivey added that shelters and community safe rooms should remain open and maintain “reasonable practices and procedures to prevent the spread of COVID-19.”

“My fellow Alabamians, stay vigilant, and stay safe,” Ivey said.

In Crossville, officials from the DeKalb County Emergency Management Agency told WHNT that the family should have been allowed into the shelter. The agency added, however, that municipalities make the rules for shelters, not county emergency officials.

Crossville Mayor Tera Fortenberry had shared a warning Saturday on Facebook to the community about the face-covering policy, saying the shelter would be open the following day at 11 a.m. “Please try to remain calm and keep your distance as much as possible. YOU ARE ENTERING AT YOUR OWN RISK.”

“Everyone has to wear a mask to be allowed to enter. (Homemade mask, medical masks or a bandana tied to cover your nose and mouth is acceptable),” Fortenberry said, adding that “gloves are appreciated but not required.”

The woman who was denied entry told the television station she does not use Facebook so she would not have seen the message, and that she would have been able to maintain a 6-foot distance since the building wasn’t full.

As severe weather was forecasted for Sunday, communities in the South prepared to open storm shelters, even though there was confusion in other municipalities over COVID-19 concerns.

In a video message posted on the town’s Facebook page on Friday, Alexander City Mayor Thomas Spraggins said residents of the central Alabama town needed to find a safe place on their own, since public shelters wouldn’t be open because of the coronavirus.

But by Saturday, the city’s police department said shelters there were opened after all; temperature checks were performed, and gloves and masks provided to anyone entering.

“Those that seek shelter will ENTER AT THEIR OWN RISK,” the city said.

The initial decision against opening shelters was also at odds with the message from Ivey.

“Both the National Weather Service and the State Public Health Department remind Alabamians that the use of shelters and other resources take precedent (sic), should the need arise,” Ivey said in a statement Saturday, according to WBRC.

Forecasters and emergency officials in several states have offered guidance about using shelters as tornado season approaches during the pandemic. The NWS office in Birmingham said in a statement that health officials are recommending during the pandemic that the first priority during a tornado warning should be “to protect yourself.”

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