March 24, 2020 10:16:17 AM
Isabelle Altman - [email protected]
The day the Columbus City Council ordered a shutdown of certain businesses to help curb the spread of COVID-19 coronavirus, a police officer arrived at Mike's Package Store on Highway 45 North and told owner James Ervin he had to close the store by 5 p.m. and remain closed until further notice.
The officer had a copy of the council's resolution, which mandated the closings of businesses like bars and nightclubs.
But after making a few phone calls to other business owners, Ervin learned liquor stores were not on the list of businesses that had to close.
"I talked to other people and they said, 'no, if you had less than 10 employees and it was not a gathering place or anything that was mentioned, that we could stay open,'" Ervin said. "What I was told was that convenience stores were staying open. ... We're basically the same as a convenience store. We're not a big grocery store. I've got three employees. All the other liquor stores said they're staying open."
Columbus Police Chief Fred Shelton said the officer had made a mistake and CPD's command staff have implemented training to make sure police understand the new restrictions.
But citizens have been having trouble too. Shelton said he received calls all weekend from city residents who wanted to know what they can and cannot do under the new regulations the council imposed.
The resolution bans all gatherings of more than 10 people, including at places of worship, and enacts a curfew from 10 p.m.-6 a.m. except for essential travel by those 18 years and older. It mandates businesses with more than 10 employees must follow social distancing guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Mississippi State Department of Health. Restaurants must suspend dine-in services.
The resolution also mandates the closing of certain places where large groups of people gather, such as convention centers and child care facilities, and recreational businesses like gyms.
Violations can lead to fines of up to $1,000 per day and 90 days in the county jail.
The board of aldermen in Starkville passed a similar set of restrictions, though they had not enacted a curfew as of press time today. Mayor Lynn Spruill said since the measure passed last week, she's received calls from her citizens as well, mainly asking whether the rule mandating gatherings of less than 10 included employees in a business.
The answer to that, she said, is no.
"Our manufacturers couldn't run if we included employees in that," she said. "But what we're asking our employers to do is to follow the guidelines of the CDC for spacing out their employees (at least six feet apart), making sure they don't come to work sick, staying at home, having hygiene restrictions, that sort of thing."
In Columbus, Shelton has gotten similar questions, albeit about gatherings outside work.
"We're getting questions about gatherings at, say, personal homes," he said. "The ordinance says assemblies and gatherings, which covers everything. ... If a family's having a birthday party and say there are over 20 people there, well that's a violation of the ordinance."
Others had questions about the new curfew in Columbus, which has now been extended to all of Lowndes County.
Police will not cite anyone going to or from work, the hospital, the grocery store, the pharmacy or for a quick dog walk close to home after 10 p.m., Shelton said, though he recommends citizens run errands and get their exercise before then. Since restaurants can remain open for pickup, drive-through and delivery services past curfew, it's also OK for citizens to go to or from restaurants.
"But if you're just out riding around for no specific reason other than just to be out, then yes, you're subject to be cited," he said.
Shelton stressed the measures are in place to keep citizens safe from the virus.
"This is something different for all of us," he said. "Normally (police) know how to protect ourselves against guns, knives, assault. However, what we're protecting our citizens from is a small microscopic virus that we can't see with the natural eye. ... These measures are not to disrupt people's lives but to protect and make sure all is safe."