BY BRIAN JONES
The Columbus City Council has banned gatherings of more than 10 people, required restaurants to serve curbside, to-go or delivery only, and set a 10 p.m. curfew, effective at 5 p.m. on Saturday, March 21. A number of specific types of businesses were also ordered closed outright. The penalty for violations will be $1,000 and up to 90 days in jail. Each violation of the order will be a separate offense.
The order stands until it is revoked by the council.
The resolution declaring a civil emergency, and an amendment to city ordinance to allow for enforcement, were approved at a Saturday afternoon special meeting.
Under the terms of the emergency declaration:
All restaurants shall serve using drive-through, curbside pickup, or delivery. The public will not be allowed to use interior or exterior dining or bar facilities.
All bars, nightclubs, meetings of fraternal or civic organizations, child care facilities, bowling alleys, recreational facilities, skating rinks, tattoo parlors, gyms, barbershops, hair/beauty and nail and tanning salons, spas, convention centers, community centers and parks shall be closed for business. This also applies to city-owned facilities, and people who have paid rental fees or deposits will be reimbursed.
All places of worship, assemblies and gatherings within the city limits shall adhere to the Centers for Disease Control and Mississippi State Department of Health recommendations and limit groups to 10 or fewer people.
All businesses that employ 10 or more people shall take reasonable measures to ensure they comply with CDC regulations and implement appropriate safeguards to limit the spread of disease, including but not limited to: mandating social distancing; sending home sick employees; separating and sending home employees with symptoms of respiratory illness; emphasizing work-from-home where possible; mandating respiratory etiquette and proper hand hygiene; maintaining clean and sanitary workplaces; and cautioning employees about travel. There are some exemptions, however: “To the extent that enforcement of (this section) might impair or impede the practical and safe operation of essential service businesses, including hospitals, nursing homes, health clinics, drug stores, pharmacies, banks, grocery stores, convenience stores and gas stations, military installations, security and emergency response organizations, such operations and services shall be exempted from (this section).”
There is now a general curfew from 10 p.m. until 6 a.m. except for essential travel by those over 18 years old. The curfew lasts until further notice.
The city may order a shelter-in-place applicable to areas of the city or the city as a whole if needed. The shelter-in-place order would be for five days, but may be repealed earlier by order of the mayor and city council.
The council may issue other orders “as necessary for the protection of life and liberty.”
“As of this morning we have four cases in Lowndes County of people who have tested positive for the coronavirus,” said Mayor Robert Smith. “We have to make these tough decisions in difficult times, and this is an emergency. The virus is serious, and we cannot take it for granted. It is our responsibility to be concerned about all the citizens of Columbus.”
“We can only go so far,” said Ward 6 Councilman Bill Gavin. “People have lives they have to go on with. The ramifications of this resolution are going to put hardship on people, there’s no doubt of that. But it’s for everyone’s benefit.”
“I think the majority of people will accept it,” Smith said. “But we have to do something for the safety and welfare of our citizens.”
Smith said the curfew was being put in place due to complaints from citizens about crowds gathering after-hours.
“We have crowds of people hanging around at the Waffle House or at the Walmart parking lot out there,” Smith said.
Ward 3 Councilman Charlie Box asked if people needed more time before the ordinance went into effect Saturday evening to learn about the new limitations, especially when it came to the curfew.
“I don’t have a hang-up about doing that, but I am worried about doing at 5 this afternoon,” Box said. “How are people going to know about any of this?”
“If the council approves this we will get this information out,” Smith said. “We assure you will get the word out.”
“Over 200 people are watching this on Facebook, so the word will get out,” said Ward 4 Councilman Pierre Beard.
Smith said the city will take enforcement very seriously.
“As far as the restaurants, I don’t foresee any problems,” he said. “I think most of them were waiting on us to do something. I think when you find one and make an example out of them, the others are going to adhere to it.”
Police Chief Fred Shelton said violators will be cited, not taken to jail.
“We have talked to the county jail and they have told us that they will turn away anyone who has COVID-19 symptoms,” Shelton said. “We are trying to limit arrests to just serious crimes, domestic violence, felonies, DUIs, things we have to make an arrest by law. We don’t want the jail overrun.”
“However, if you fine somebody today, and then tomorrow, and then on Monday, jail might be the right option,” Turnage said.
Both the emergency declaration and the amendment to the city ordinance to add penalties were approved unanimously.