Starkville aldermen voted unanimously Friday mandating restaurants to serve customers via takeout, drive-through and delivery only, and restricting social and business gatherings to 10 people or fewer in an effort to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus.
“I don’t think any of us here takes this lightly because we know that when we do this, we’re impacting individuals’ wages, their jobs, their well-being,” Ward 2 Alderman Sandra Sistrunk said in the special-call meeting. “We recognize the potential damage that’s going to come to the business community by doing this, and this is as somber a vote as I believe this board has taken.”
The resolution is effective immediately and will stay in place for 30 days unless the city or state extends it. Violators would serve a maximum of 90 days in jail and pay a maximum fine of $1,000, and Starkville Police Chief Mark Ballard said enforcement would happen after a few warnings.
The 10-person gathering mandate comes from a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendation. Exceptions to the limit include but are not limited to, hospitals, nursing homes, grocery stores, convenience stores/gas stations and banks.
The board of aldermen declared a local state of emergency at its regular meeting Tuesday. It also dialed back curbside garbage pickup to one day per week for each route, rather than twice weekly, and temporarily suspended curbside recycling.
Many restaurants in Starkville had already enacted a 10-customer limit or switched to takeout or delivery only by Tuesday, and Mayor Lynn Spruill said at the time that she was not comfortable closing restaurants and “singling them out in a way that isn’t necessarily fair to other retailers.” However, Mississippi had 80 confirmed cases of COVID-19 by Friday, and a Hancock County resident was the first in the state to die of the virus on Thursday.
That number had jumped to 140 by Saturday, according to the Mississippi State Department of Health, with four confirmed cases in Lowndes County and one in Clay. As of Saturday, there still had been no confirmed cases in Oktibbeha County.
There have been no additional deaths reported in Mississippi from the virus.
Discussions on possible curfew
Starkville’s resolution states the city considers COVID-19 to be a natural disaster and reserves the right to order a curfew or “shelter-in-place” order for a maximum of five days if deemed necessary to keep people safe. Spruill does not have the authority to order a curfew herself, so the board would have to meet again to approve it.
Ward 5 Alderman Hamp Beatty asked if the board needed to consider giving the mayor this authority in case a majority of the board is not in a position to meet in the future. Spruill said she did not think it was necessary.
“If it escalates and we get to the point where we feel we need to do that, we can certainly revisit it, and I don’t think we’re there yet,” she said.
Ward 1 Alderman Ben Carver said he would “probably never” support a curfew under any circumstances.
“There are too many people that work night shifts and things that happen at night,” he said. “It doesn’t mean that just because you’re out at night, you’re doing bad things.”
Sistrunk asked City Attorney Chris Latimer if the 10-person gathering limit could withstand any potential legal challenges pertaining to freedom of assembly or speech. Latimer said it is not guaranteed but most likely will hold up in court, and the only way to completely remove any “legal risk” would be to make the 10-person maximum a recommendation instead of a requirement.
“The flip side of that is if you make it a recommendation, then perhaps it’s not adhered to this weekend, and then perhaps you’re dealing with additional COVID-19 cases and maybe even deaths because it wasn’t a mandate,” Latimer said.
Sistrunk said she was “not fond of” a resolution that could hurt local businesses and asked to be the last board member called in a roll call vote that turned out to be unanimous.
Several states have issued stay-at-home orders, and Gov. Tate Reeves announced Thursday that all schools in Mississippi will stay closed until April 17.
“It’s incumbent upon us to take steps before we find ourselves in Oktibbeha County (saying), ‘Why didn’t we, and what steps should we have taken sooner?'” Spruill said.
Tess Vrbin was previously a reporter for The Dispatch.