Child care facilities in Columbus, previously shut down by a March 21 city order in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, can now reopen if they comply with a series of restrictions set out in a city resolution the council passed Tuesday evening.
The resolution passed by a 5-1 margin despite concerns from some council members about the potential danger of allowing the businesses to stay open, as well as the enforceability of the law. Ward 2 Councilman Joseph Mickens cast the lone dissenting vote.
City Attorney Jeff Turnage said the city’s resolution is designed to comply with the executive orders Gov. Tate Reeves signed on March 23 and last week, both of which identified child care facilities as essential businesses during the state emergency. The resolution will last until at least 8 a.m. April 20, the same time Reeves’ shelter in place order expires, unless the city takes further actions.
The executive orders “nullified” the city’s March 21 order that shut down those facilities, Turnage said. Not complying with the orders may subject the city to lawsuits brought by businesses under the Civil Rights Act, he said.
“The governor has left us no room (to force the closure),” he said.
The city is allowed to design more stringent rules than the executive orders, Turnage said, but only if they don’t hinder operations of the essential businesses. Although the city cannot shut down child care facilities, it is allowed to implement regulations, he said.
To stay open, child care facilities in the city must take reasonable steps to protect children’s health, including preventing children from touching their mouths, noses and eyes, stopping in-person contacts between children and keeping them six feet apart, according to the resolution.
Employees should all wear masks when within six feet of a child, make sure there are fewer than 10 people in the same space at once and check temperatures of all support staff, the resolution said. Parents also have to make sure not to drop off sick children at day cares.
Naomi Edmonds, director at the First United Methodist Church Early Learning Center, recommended designating staff to work with certain children in a designated room to slow down the spread of the virus.
“When you go down to 10 (people in a room), you are talking about two teachers and eight children. That’s a big change,” Edmonds said. “I would make sure that those … were the only people that had contact with each other all day long, Monday through Friday.”
Mayor Robert Smith said he doesn’t know any day care centers in Columbus that remain open. Schools are already required to close, he said, and child care facilities are just as vital.
“I just don’t understand the reason behind the day cares not being important (enough) to close down,” Smith said.
Violating the regulations would result in a fine of up to $1,000 or up to 90 days in jail, Turnage said.
Although not without concerns, some council members voiced agreement that applying restrictions was the best way to minimize the spread of coronavirus while complying with the governor’s orders.
“We may not have a choice,” said Ward 6 Councilman Bill Gavin. “But maybe we can put those limitations on it so that we can do what we can as a governing body.”
Ward 4 Councilman Pierre Beard said it can be hard to enforce the law on child care facilities, since it’s hard to prevent children from touching their faces or keep them at a safe distance all the time.
“That’s kind of like impossible already,” Beard said. “If we say we are going fine day cares and they look at these stipulations … there’s nobody that’s going to go to every single day care if they open to see that.”
Mickens, who voted against the resolution, said he disagrees with the governor’s decision to allow day cares to be open at all. Statistics in other cities show the coronavirus heavily impacts African Americans, he said, and more than 60 percent of Columbus’ population is African American.
“We got 30 percent of the population in Chicago, Illinois,” Mickens said. “Seventy percent of the deaths look like me.
“I can’t agree to opening these centers back up. I can’t,” he added.
Lion Hills stays closed
The council also discussed whether to allow Lion Hills Club golf course to open. The golf course is currently closed, but Smith said he spoke with Lion Hills Director Cheryl Hubbard, who told him the club can work to keep golf carts and other equipment sanitized.
Smith said a resident emailed him to let him know that “the governor said he didn’t see a problem with them playing golf.”
But many council members refused to entertain the idea.
“(All the sports facilities) are shut down because of this, and we are going to open up a golf course?” Gavin said. “You might as well open up the tennis court, and you might as well open up the Parks and Rec.”
The city is also applying for federal assistance for the COVID-19 pandemic after President Donald Trump approved Mississippi’s Disaster Declaration during the crisis, said city spokesperson Joe Dillon.
At the meeting, Dillon was appointed as the city’s Federal Emergency Management Agency disaster manager for the COVID-19 pandemic. He will be paid $92 an hour for related work and his salary will be capped at $10,000, the council decided Tuesday night. The city will pay for the cost upfront and 87.5 percent of the cost will be reimbursed by federal and state emergency management agencies, he said.
“It would not cost the city anything except for the 12.5 percent of whatever (the salary ends up being),” Dillon said during the meeting.
Yue Stella Yu was previously a reporter for The Dispatch.