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Hartford sees spike in COVID-19 cases following candidate forum
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Hartford sees spike in COVID-19 cases following candidate forum

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HARTFORD – Several businesses and government offices in Hartford have temporarily closed to the public due to a recent spike in COVID-19 cases in the small Geneva County town.

On Tuesday, Hartford City Hall was closed to the public, although employees were still answering phones. The town’s McGregor-McKinney Public Library and several businesses also announced closures to the public until further notice.

The spike in cases follows a candidate forum held July 23 at a local restaurant.

Geneva County Emergency Management Director Eric Johnson said there are at least seven cases now linked to the event, which included a meet-and-greet beforehand with candidates running for mayor and city council in an Aug. 25 municipal election.

“Everybody pretty much knows everybody in Hartford … so they know who was there, and I think everybody has been contacted who were at that particular meeting,” Johnson said. “Anybody that feels they were exposed is doing what they’re supposed to be.”

The event was hosted by the Hartford Area Chamber of Commerce and held at Ketchem’s Restaurant.

Johnson said the EMA provided masks for the event; however, many attendees were not always wearing masks based on photos from the event. Johnson said city officials and the venue’s owners are doing everything they can to mitigate the situation and prevent further spread.

“I think everybody suddenly understands in Hartford the gravity of the situation,” Johnson said.

About 35 to 40 people attended the event, according to the restaurant’s owners.

Ketchem’s is a popular restaurant, event venue, and ice cream parlor. The event was held in the ice cream parlor section of the business with the remainder closed off, said Cherie Orr, who operates the business with her brother, Jason Ketchem. The event was held after normal business hours and only coffee was served. Orr, Ketchem, and two employees were the only staff on hand for the event. Orr said they were notified Monday morning about the COVID-19 exposure.

The restaurant will remain open for dining and will be offering take-out and curbside, Orr said.

“We’re just doing what we know to do,” Orr said. “We’ve cleaned up really good, but we were cleaning every day anyway.”

Orr said the restaurant has not strictly enforced masks for employees, but she said employees would now be wearing masks.

“We’re cleaning, we’re masking up, we’re taking condiments off the tables,” Orr said. “Our tables were already distanced so we didn’t really have to take any measures with that. This was just an event that was just simply held at our premises.”

Under the Alabama Department of Public Health’s COVID-19 Risk Indicator Dashboard, Geneva County is currently classified as a “very high risk” county for the spread of COVID-19. A county is assigned a risk category based on factors such as the number of new cases staying the same or increasing, the amount of testing being done, the percentage of positive tests, and the percentage of people visiting emergency rooms and urgent care clinics with COVID-like symptoms.

In the Wiregrass, Barbour and Dale counties are also classified as “very high risk.” Coffee, Covington, Henry and Houston counties are all considered “high risk” while Pike County has been classified as “moderate risk.” The state health department updates its online risk indicator dashboard on Fridays.

In Geneva County, there were 194 confirmed cases of COVID-19 among the county’s residents as of Tuesday. Of those, 70 are active cases, Johnson said. Eighty-three cases have been confirmed in the last 14 days in Geneva County. Adjacent counties each have a higher number of confirmed cases – Coffee with 649; Covington with 644; Dale with 713 and Houston with 1,162, as of Tuesday.

Alabama has more than 80,000 confirmed cases.

In Hartford – a town of about 2,600 residents – the First National Bank announced plans to close its lobby beginning Wednesday, and will be operating with additional drive-through lanes at its three locations. The local pharmacy asked customers to use its drive-through and a local florist and even a nonprofit thrift shop also closed to the public and asked customers to call for service.

Geneva County Health Department already had plans to hold a COVID-19 testing clinic at the James S. Radford Recreation Park, 238 Rec Park Road, in Hartford on Thursday from 8:30 until 10:30 a.m. Appointments are not required, and testing is available to patients who meet the testing criteria and while supplies last.

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