TUPELO • Mayor Jason Shelton has ordered non-essential businesses in the city to close and mandated residents to shelter in place, though allowances are made for certain kinds of travel, commerce and other needs.
Shelton signed the orders Saturday night and they went into force Sunday, though City Hall leadership continued to huddle Sunday and work out details related to enforcement measures and exemptions for certain businesses, especially within the furniture industry.
Flexibility will be exercised moving forward and the goal is not to be “draconian,” the mayor said.
“We’re in the middle of a game without a playbook,” Shelton told the Daily Journal.. “We will work with anyone to help them be in compliance as best as they can.”
The imposition of the first shelter-in-place order in the state comes as Mississippi’s reported numbers of presumptive cases discovered through testing rose over 200.
On Sunday, the Mississippi State Health Department said recent testing has confirmed 67 new presumptive cases, bringing the state total of these cases to 207. That includes new cases in Lee, Tippah and Lafayette counties, and the first known cases in Chickasaw and Pontotoc counties.
The shelter-in-place order is in force from Sunday, March 21 through the end of the day on Saturday, March 28. The closure of non-essential businesses essentially runs for the same duration.
Under the mayor’s executive action, essential businesses may remain open. These include grocery stores, banks, pharmacies, gas stations, day cares and food processing facilities as well as those businesses designated by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security as critical.
The Homeland Security guidance is extensive, and includes companies and businesses in the following sectors: healthcare, funeral services, law enforcement, first responders, food and agriculture, energy, water and wastewater, transportation and logistics, public works, communication and information, critical manufacturing, hazardous materials, financial services and defense.
A complete list of guidance on critical workers from Homeland Security may be found at cisa.gov/coronavirus.
Non-essential businesses may seek an exemption.
Under the shelter-in-place directive, individuals should, in general, remain at home, though numerous exceptions are made. Employees of essential businesses may continue driving to work. People may also travel to essential businesses, including to grocery stores to buy food or to restaurants for drive-through or pick-up service.
People would also be allowed to travel for healthcare purposes, or to care for someone else. Shelton also said individuals may walk outdoors for exercise and health as needed, provide social distancing measures are used.
“It’s not like a quarantine where you’ve got the National Guard in here checking the borders,” said Ben Logan, the city attorney. “It’s not a lockdown. It’s a stay in place till we can get these symptoms that are being reported tamped down.”
However, all individuals are now required to follow relevant guidelines published by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and the state Health Department related to controlling the spread of coronavirus.
This includes directives not gathering in groups greater than 10 and maintaining a distance of six feet from others.
The mayor and city attorney on Sunday both said the administration was working through the details of how essential businesses – including grocery stores – should observe CDC guidelines around crowd size and distancing.
“We know it’s not realistic that everyone can just comply overnight with something we’ve never faced,” Shelton said. “But we think it’s important to make a strong statement that we’re going to take this seriously, we’re going to be proactive.”
Another executive order signed by the mayor halts all utility shutoffs, evictions and foreclosures to the extent allowed by law. This order would apply in situations where non-payments are linked to financial hardship caused by COVID-19.
Shelton urged anyone with questions about the orders to email him at email@example.com.
Under Mississippi state law, the mayor may declare the existence of a local emergency and issue rules in response to that emergency in order to preserve life.
That local emergency declaration remains in place until the next meeting of the City Council, or until a special call meeting of the council. The council must then either ratify the declaration and keep it in place, or vote to end the declaration.
The council convened a work session Saturday by conference call, and Shelton advised them of his plans to issue new executive orders revising an emergency declaration previously ratified by the council.
At that work session, council members raised some questions and concerns, but ultimately indicated a willingness to leave the mayor’s actions in force. He also distributed draft orders for review before signing them.
The next scheduled council meeting is in April, and Council President Nettie Davis said there are currently no plans to call a meeting before then, which would leave the executive action in place throughout this coming week.
Ward 1 Councilman Markel Whittington said he had concerns about enforcement of the executive orders, but nonetheless urged local citizens to heed the directives.
“I think all of the council may or may not have agreed with everything the mayor said,” said Ward 5 Councilman Buddy Palmer. “But I think all the council, if they had to err, we’re going to err on the side of safety for our citizens.”