Restaurant operations and public gatherings will now be limited to 10 people or less for most establishments as the Starkville Board of Aldermen passed a resolution Friday to combat the spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19).
Aldermen also unanimously approved an ordinance that makes it a criminal offense to violate provisions of the new emergency resolution that is now in effect for the next 30 days unless acted upon by the board.
Mayor Lynn Spruill and the board discussed each vote at length, with all involved commenting on the difficulty of the decisions in front of them.
The emergency resolution was crafted by city attorney Chris Latimer and modeled after a similar approach taken by the city of Oxford, although Spruill admitted the local measure passed on Friday goes a little further.
The proclamation requires all restaurants operate as take-out only, curbside or delivery, while also restricting all social gatherings at businesses, places of worship and other organizations to 10 people or less. This excludes essential services, such as grocery stores, nursing homes, hospitals, clinics, gas stations and convenience stores.
Spruill said the measure came about after numerous local businesses remained fully operational as others heeded the suggestion of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention by limiting gatherings to 10 people or less.
“Most of our restaurants and bars and businesses have been extremely sensitive in dealing with all the issues we are dealing with and the nation is dealing with, but there are those who have not, and I think they are waiting on us to do something to feel it’s something they can then ask their clientele and customers coming in on a regular basis to do,” Spruill said.
While little debate came in the way of restaurants and bars, regulating attendance in places of worship did raise concerns.
Ward 1 Aldermen Ben Carver mentioned limited attendance at houses of worships, but acknowledged the importance of not putting the public at risk of spreading the virus.
He asked Spruill if church congregants wanted to gather and worship in their vehicles in a shared outdoor space, like a drive-in movie, would it be prohibited?
Spruill said a situation like that would be permitted, so long as participants are in the enclosed space of their vehicle.
A second provision included in the resolution would allow the mayor and Board of Aldermen to enact a curfew in the event one is needed to maintain order.
Carver was also vocally opposed to the measure and at one point in the meeting, said he “would never” support support a curfew for a place like Starkville.
Ward 3 Alderman David Little, with a halfway laugh, commented “never say never.”
Carver conceded, saying his thoughts were more to the point of folks being connected by technology and generally abiding by laws in a small town.
Debate continued, though, as Carver asked the mayor about restaurants with open patios and the square-footage to practice “social distancing.”
“I cruised the streets last night and Bulldog Burger has that nice open patio but there were a number of people inside,” Spruill said. “You have servers coming in to serve on a regular basis. I think it’s a little different than taking a package out to somebody and leaving it and they get it.”
Debate moved back to the discussion of curfews, as Ward 2 Alderwoman Sandra Sistrunk suggested striking the curfew provision from the resolution completely, the rationale being that the board could come back and decide on implementing a curfew if the need arises.
Ward 5 Alderman Hamp Beatty posed the possibility of granting the mayor the ability to unilaterally institute a curfew in the event board members fell ill.
The debate stalled, though, with Spruill encouraging aldermen to hold out and take the situation as it comes, as the board has the ability to amend the resolution or rescind it altogether as the situation changes.
The final question posed for the resolution came from Sistrunk, who asked Latimer if the measure would protect the city in case unique instances of free speech or freedom of assembly presented conflicts.
Latimer, who was in attendance via phone, admitted that while the city would not have guaranteed protection, during these uncertain times, it will likely be the best decision for the city from a proactive standpoint.
“If someone were to bring a constitutional challenge to [restrictions on gatherings], my judgement today is the law is in favor of reasonable actions during dire circumstances and my guess is that the city would prevail.”
Beatty agreed, saying the importance of being proactive in this moment was crucial for how the city’s response will be remembered.
“I just don’t want us to look back and have the opportunity to enact something we feel like was in the best interest of our citizens and didn’t do it,” Beatty said. “We’re in extraordinary times and never faced anything like this.”
Before the board took a roll-call vote on the measure, Sistrunk made clear that she wanted to be the last to vote as she contemplated the numerous nuances of the emergency resolution.
The measure, however, required a unanimous vote in favor from Aldermen to pass and go into effect immediately.
The resolution passed with no opposition.
After a full debate on the matter of imposing restrictions on restaurant service and public gatherings, talk then moved to enforcing the newly-passed 30-day resolution.
An ordinance presented by the mayor called for punitive measures for anyone who violated any provisions of the resolution, punishable with fines up to $1,000 and/or up to 90 days in jail.
Starkville Police Chief Mark Ballard spoke on his department’s role and assured both the board and the citizenry that their approach will be one of education and not excessive enforcement.
Ballard said his department will be more focused on examples such as a nightclub or bar owner taking advantage of the situation and promoting a large gathering, placing public health at risk while deliberately disobeying the resolution.
The police chief used the example to underscore the notion that their approach will not be set on limiting activity in the religious community.
“That’s something we consider a core component of this ordinance, we’re highly respectful of the religions that make up this community,” he said.
As the measure immediately went into effect, Spruill said she had already contacted many of the establishments and Ballard said his department would aid in any way possible. “Unfortunately, not everyone is as responsible as we would hope they would be,” Ballard said. “There are those who would choose to be responsible, it’s that kind of mindset that will help us as a community.”
While the resolution and penalty ordinance are among the most extreme precautionary measures taken among Mississippi cities at the present, Spruill emphasized that the board will be able to make changes on the 30-day resolution at its next meeting or if the need arises.
“We’ll take that up at the next board meeting to evaluate,” Spruill said.