TUPELO • As COVID-19 continues to march through many Northeast Mississippi counties, leaders of the All-America City are proposing some of the most stringent safety measures a municipality can enact during a state of emergency.
Following a City Council emergency work session, Mayor Jason Shelton, a Democrat, will issue an executive order requiring all residents comply with the coronavirus guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, closing all non-essential businesses, requiring all non-essential business employees to “shelter in place” and suspending all utility disconnections, evictions and foreclosures.
“I mistakenly waited for the state to act,” Shelton said. “I understand that the state is not going to issue any orders to assist the city. So local governments, cities and counties, are going to be on their own.”
Shelton’s mandate to close non-essential businesses in the economic hub of Northeast Mississippi and to ask citizens to shelter in place is the most stringent action taken by any Mississippi municipality in response to the virus.
Examples of essential businesses that would be allowed to remain open are grocery stores, restaurants, hardware stores, daycares, churches, medical clinics, gas stations, veterinarian clinics and banks.
While the Council did not take a formal vote on any of the proposals, a majority of the Council voiced support for nearly all of the mayor’s proposals. However, some Council members thought that issuing a shelter in place order would be premature. Under Shelton’s proposal, a shelter in place order would be a requirement that all non-essential travel cease unless conducting important business or checking on family members.
“You can recommend people to stay at their home, but I think at this point in time, shelter in place is ridiculous,” Ward 5 Councilman Buddy Palmer said in the meeting.
Palmer later told the Daily Journal in a telephone interview that public safety for all Tupelo citizens is a priority, but he thought the city was “looking at this mighty quick” and wanted to slow down to review some of the measures more.
Ward 6 Councilman Mike Bryan also told the Daily Journal that he wants to review the provisions in the order more before making a final decision but is “seriously considering supporting these four items.”
“My concern is if the city of Tupelo only does these stringent things, are we spinning our wheels if the surrounding municipalities don’t do the same thing?”
Other Council members suggested that, for now, that the mayor only recommend that residents shelter in place and issue a formal shelter in place mandate at a later date.
According to Ben Logan, the city attorney, the executive orders temporarily carry the full weight of a city ordinance because the city is operating in a state of a civil emergency. The Council can later formally ratify or override the order at its next meeting, but because the Council has already granted Shelton's previous emergency declaration, his executive order carries the weight of an ordinance, according to Logan.
Shelton told the Daily Journal that city officials would not be harsh on Sunday if people are in violation of the orders, but that the spread of the virus is to be taken seriously.
The meeting comes just hours after Shelton issued a directive to the Tupelo Police Department and the Tupelo Fire Department to break up a large gathering of people at an auction at the Tupelo Furniture Market.
At a Tuesday City Council meeting, city officials said they knew the event was originally scheduled to take place this weekend, but thought the auction was going to be postponed. Shelton told the Daily Journal in a telephone interview that the order was given to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus and protect the health of Tupelo citizens.
“There were people from all over Northeast Mississippi,” Shelton said.
V.M. Cleveland, the CEO of the furniture market, told the Daily Journal in a statement that apologizes for the event and takes full responsibility for allowing the auction to take place.
“We have rescheduled several other events,” Cleveland said. “We are very active in Northeast Mississippi’s community and we made a mistake. We did tell them to close it down before we received Mayor Shelton’s order. We have always supported this community and the city of Tupelo.”
Shelton also issued an executive order on Saturday morning banning public events and gatherings greater than 50 people from taking place in the city.
Multiple city leaders this week have called for Republican Gov. Tate Reeves or state agencies to issue more uniform and statewide safety restrictions instead of local governments making safety decisions.
“It’s just an abdication of leadership at the highest level of the state of Mississippi, and we’re just not going to wait any longer in the city of Tupelo,” Shelton said. “There will likely be political repercussions. We have a governor who is notorious for payback. I’ll take the consequences, whatever it may be, but I’m going to do everything I can to keep our citizens safe.”
At a recent meeting Ward 2 Councilman Lynn Bryan, a Republican, also called for uniform action from state leaders.
“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,” 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.”
A communications official with the governor’s office did not immediately have a response to Shelton’s or other city leader’s remarks, but said she would speak with the governor for a possible response. As of Saturday evening, Reeves has not issued a response to the Daily Journal.
As of Saturday, Mississippi has 140 total presumptive cases of the virus with cases in many Northeast Mississippi counties such as Lee, Monroe, Lafayette, Lowndes, Marshall, Union and Itawamba Counties. Lee County now stands at five cases, with four new reported on Saturday.
City leaders are set to meet with county officials and other city officials from other municipalities in Lee County to possibly create uniform safety measures within the county.