djr-2020-03-13-news-tupelo-presser-twp2

City officials listen as Tupelo Mayor Jason Shelton holds a press conference March 12 announcing steps the city is taking to help control the spread of coronavirus.

Editor's Note: This story has now been updated to reflect the latest changes from Mayor Jason Shelton's amended executive order that was issued Saturday morning.

TUPELO • To curtail the spread of COVID-19, Mayor Jason Shelton issued an amended executive order on Saturday morning in response to new guidelines issued by state health officials — guidelines that he and other city leaders have repeatedly asked state officials to enact. 

The Mississippi State Department of Health unveiled new health recommendations on Friday evening advising all restaurants in the state close their in house dining services indefinitely to slow the spread of the virus. The guideline was a recommendation and does not carry the force of law. 

After initially hesitating to issue a restriction without the guidance of state officials, Shelton issued an executive order on Thursday allowing restaurants to use some of their dining space and forcing them to close dining spaces altogether on Monday. 

“Everything that we’re talking about, everything that we’re dealing with, there’s some office in Jackson that specializes in it, and we would prefer that they lead on it,” Shelton told Council members in a Friday work session. “Be that as it may, we have got to take action here in our community.”

At the work session, members of the Tupelo City Council voiced approval of nearly all the items in Mayor Jason Shelton’s order, and some also renewed calls to urge statewide leaders to increase new safety measures to slow the spread of COVID-19.

While the Council did not formally ratify the order, nearly all Council members informally voiced support for it.

Shelton's revised order will require all restaurants to close dining facilities immediately and to only allow them to offer services by drive-thru, to-go, takeout or delivery means. 

Tupelo is also requiring on Monday all gas stations, package stores and small retail stores to only have a maximum limit of 10 people in their facilities at one time. The health department’s recommendation does not include gas stations and grocery stores, according to a press release from the department.

Some Council members said they thought this item might have to be revised later, but a majority of the Council approved it.

“I’m fine with that, and I think in theory that’s going to work great,” Ward 1 Councilman Markel Whittington said. “But I think with some of these larger gas stations like Dodge’s and Papa V’s, you’re going to create a crowd outside waiting to get in, which is going to be worse than letting more people in than 10.”

Once ratified, the order will be treated similarly to a city ordinance, which could result in penalties for people who don’t adhere to the new restrictions, although Shelton said some of the new rules will have to be policed on the “honor system.”

According to media reports, other local governing authorities throughout Mississippi have issued temporary measures similar to Tupelo’s new restrictions, including Oxford, Jackson, Houston and Lafayette County.

The Oxford Board of Aldermen on Tuesday approved a request by Mayor Robyn Tannehill to close all bars and restaurant dining areas, which made Oxford one of the first municipalities in the state to issue that type of order.

Tannehill told the Daily Journal in a telephone interview that it is difficult to balance the needs of a business community and the public safety of citizens.

There’s no guidebook on this,” Tannehill said.

She said she thought the decision was difficult, the order she requested was the right move for the community at the right time. Even though Tannehill was one of the first mayors to take a restrictive measure for restaurants, she believes the state government will continue to respond in a positive way.

When asked at what point she thought statewide officials should issue a uniform order instead of different local governments making individual decisions to best curb the spread of the virus, Tannehill said she thought the state will step in when the virus continues to spread throughout the state.

“I would base that (decision) on the spread of the virus, and I would say that we’re there now,” Tannehill said. “We’ve seen it continue to spread across the state.”

As of Saturday, there are 140 total presumptive COVID-19 cases in the state, with cases in several Northeast Mississippi counties including Lafayette, Lee, Marshall, Tippah, Union and Monroe Counties, according to the Mississippi State Department of Health’s website.

Even though a new safety guideline was issued by the state health department, three members of the Tupelo City Council said they also wanted more safety measures from either state or federal officials to be enacted to create a more uniform policy.

“We’re looking for some leadership from the governor and his team because right now we’ve got all these municipalities making different decisions and some of them mesh and some of them don’t, but we need a unified stance here,” Ward 6 Councilman Lynn Bryan said. “I think we ought to do it on no uncertain terms and put the ball in their lap, or we’re going to keep on having to meet like this every 24 hours and come up with a new approach.”

Ward 7 Councilman Willie Jennings said he agreed with Lynn Bryan’s statement, and Ward 6 Councilman Mike Bryan also said he wanted more state or federal intervention.

“I wish the state and national levels would go ahead and do a blanket policy across the country,” Mike Bryan said. “With that said, we as municipality leaders, we don’t need to sit around trying to wait. We’ve got to take care of our own in our city right now until they do what they’re going to do.”

Even though the health department has now issued a new recommendation regarding dining services for restaurants, Shelton and Council members are still asking state officials to make a decision regarding day care centers.

"My intention right now is to follow the Mississippi State Department of Health guidelines, which right now, do not recommend closing day care facilities," Shelton said in a social media video on Saturday.

Tupelo City Council members can either call a special meeting to ratify Shelton’s executive order or override it, or they can choose take action on the order at its next regular meeting on April 7.

taylor.vance@journalinc.com

Twitter: @taylor_vance28

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