In a special-called meeting Thursday, the Forrest County Board of Supervisors approved a number of restrictions on businesses within the county, mirroring a similar order issued Tuesday by Hattiesburg Mayor Toby Barker.
Under the restrictions, which go into effect Monday, full-service restaurants are required to reduce indoor and outdoor seating capacity by half or to 50, whichever is less. Restaurants must cease operations at 9 p.m. each night, but delivery and pickup options can still be offered after the dining room closes. Establishments must also provide at least 6 feet of space between tables.
Bars are limited to a 30-person capacity and must close by midnight each business day.
"Operators will post notice to patrons that when they depart to please consider returning home," according to the order. The order also states that operators "will not allow gathering for waiting for seating or access purposes ... they will implement use of text messaging, phone call or other notification to advise if the table is ready."
Operators should discourage public gatherings in any area, and once patrons leave an establishment, they may not loiter in the street or congregate in groups outside.
Event venues are restricted from having gatherings of more than 50 people, and gyms and fitness centers must limit to no more than 50 people while practicing frequent sanitation methods throughout business hours.
Supervisors originally discussed a ban on restaurant dine-in options, and Board President David Hogan, who represents District 1, said Barker is considering such a ban in the city.
“I’m for getting serious on this … or we leave it alone,” said District 4 Supervisor Rod Woullard.
Ultimately, the board decided to keep dining rooms open – for now – but asked Sheriff Charlie Sims and his deputies to serve notice to establishments regarding the new restrictions and to enforce the board’s actions if necessary.
The board also approved a plan to add wireless internet to 14 county-owned sites, including community centers. The wireless points were requested by schools and will be furnished by AT&T within 7-10 days at a cost of nearly $8,000 a month. The service is on a monthly contract, which will allow the board to cancel it when schools resume in-person meetings.
The internet will be available in the parking lot of these facilities, and Hogan said residents will be asked to remain in their vehicles while using the internet.
The expense could be reimbursed from the federal or state government, according to Board Attorney David Miller, but this is currently unknown.
The sheriff’s department will patrol the 14 sites to ensure public safety and public health considerations.
During the meeting, Hogan also provided an update from Thursday’s stakeholder meeting of local governments, schools and health professionals:
• There are 30 new cases in Mississippi as of Thursday morning, although there were no new reported cases from Forrest County.
• There are more than 130 tests from the Forrest County area at the state health department lab in Jackson, but the lab is “inundated,” said Hogan, and results are “slow to come back.”
• There are a total of nine cases in the Forrest Health system.
• The Forrest Health system has 90 ventilators, and there are concerns about the adequacy of that supply.
• There are limited supplies of testing kits, and some employers are requiring tests of their employees before they can return to work. “This is not a real possibility,” said Hogan. “There’s no capacity for it.”
• Testing is reserved for patients in the “worst health,” said Hogan. At the Cough & Fever Clinic operated by Forrest Health and Hattiesburg Clinic, there were 157 people treated Tuesday with 19 tested. On Wednesday, there were 130 treated with an additional 19 tested.
• Those with symptoms can call the clinic at (601) 264-6000 to schedule an appointment or they can call their primary care provider.
• The “surge” of the virus is not expected to hit until mid-May to mid-June, according to area health experts, and local cases will “ramp up in the coming weeks.”
Personal protective equipment is in short supply, and the county has few reserve resources available, said Glenn Moore, emergency management director.
“FEMA and MEMA usually provide these supplies, but the state doesn’t have enough,” he said.
Moore’s office is buying what it can in masks, hand sanitizer and gowns, but the director said he has limited financial resources to do so. He said a mask, which normally costs about 90 cents, is retailing for about $8 to $11 now.
“It’s criminal price gouging,” he said.
FEMA is tapping into the national strategic stockpile of supplies, but only 1 percent of that stockpile is expected to come to Mississippi.
“There are about 1,000 entries into MEMA for those supplies … and Forrest County accounts for about 15 percent of those entries,” said Moore.
Moore said the pandemic will most likely overshadow Hurricane Katrina.
“This has a good chance of wiping Katrina off the map,” he said.
Hogan added that people are encouraged to attend virtual church services and to self-isolate if possible. He said new treatments – including a treatment for malaria – are being used, but local doctors haven’t seen it working.
“Doctors are giving anti-virals and anti-malarial medicines to the sickest patients,” he said.
Hogan said rumors of Z-Pak antibiotics being used to successfully treat COVID-19 are false.
In other business:
• The board expressed its frustration with the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency for being slow to return $3.5 million in county taxpayer funds used to build storm shelters in the county. MEMA functions as a pass-through agency for the money, which comes from federal grants. Supervisors entered executive session to discuss the matter with MEMA officials and asked them to expedite the payment if possible. “In uncertain times, we’d love to have that taxpayer money back,” said Hogan.
• The board heard an update from county judges, who are using the teleconferencing app Zoom to conduct judicial business.