Mayor issues executive order limiting restaurants, bars and nightclubs

By HASKEL BURNS,

To help protect the health of the community during the current COVID-19 pandemic, Mayor Toby Barker has issued an executive order that will limit the hours and services of Hattiesburg restaurants, bars and nightclubs – including closing earlier and limiting the number of customers – while still allowing those establishments to fulfill the needs of their patrons.

During a news conference Tuesday at Hattiesburg City Hall, Barker issued the order consistent with Section 33-15-17 (c)(7) of the Mississippi Code of 1972, which allows the control or restriction of the egress, ingress and movement within certain areas to facilitate the protection of life and property.

“While we know more in our community will be sick and COVID-19 will spread, please be reassured that your medical community, educational institutions, elected officials, and city and county administrators are doing all we can to create a best-case scenario so that we all move through this pandemic together,” Barker said. “This means adjusting some key policies as it relates to restaurants, bars and other event venues.

“We recognize the threat that COVID-19 presents to our seniors and at-risk populations, and we also recognize the damage this virus will do to our economy and the terrible toll this will likely take on individuals who are going to lose their jobs. Protecting our public health is paramount, and keeping our head about us and making strategic decisions to keep Hattiesburg functioning is also important.”

Effective from March 18-31, all full-service restaurants with indoor seating must cease operations at 9 p.m. each night, but restaurants will still be allowed to offer delivery, pickup or to-go orders after the dining room closes. Full-service restaurants and coffee shops also will be required to reduce indoor seating capacity by half – or to 50, whichever is less – and must provide at least 6 feet of space between tables.

Those same seating arrangements must be made at outdoor seating areas at full-service restaurants and coffee shops.

Bars and nightclubs will be required to stop service at midnight each business day and will reduce their capacity by half of the posted patron limit. Last call will be announced at 11:15 p.m., and everyone must be out of the establishment by midnight.

“Mall food courts, both at Turtle Creek and Cloverleaf, will reduce seating capacity to 50 people and ensure there is at least 6 feet between tables,” Barker said. “Operators will post notice to patrons of restaurants that when they depart, to please consider returning home.

“Operators will not allow gathering for waiting, for seating or for access purposes – they will implement the use of text messaging, phone calls or other notification to advise that the table is ready. Operators will encourage no public gatherings in any area.”

Once patrons exit the premises of restaurants or bars, they will not be allowed to loiter in the street on congregate in groups outside.

All dance hall permits are suspended until March 31, and event venues will be held to gatherings of no more than 50 people. All gyms and fitness centers will ensure there are no more than 50 people in their facilities at one time and will practice frequent sanitation methods throughout business hours.

“We realize the ultimate goal of the president and the governor is to reduce crowds to 10 and fewer people, and based on what I’ve seen at restaurants and coffee shops recently, we are there or at least well on our way,” Barker said. “These guidelines I’ve laid out will further push that to fruition.”

During the press conference, Dr. Rambod Rouhbakhsh, assistant director of the family medicine residency program at Forrest General Hospital, also spoke about the possibility of closing schools.

“When it comes to transmission amongst kids, what we know for sure is they don’t get sick as the adults do, so we got spared in that instance of the virus,” he said. “We’re not quite sure if they can be a vector for this disease, meaning pass it on to others, but we do know they don’t get as ill as adults do.

“We’re trying to decide what to do with that benefit that we’ve been granted with this virus. It’s a complicated decision because it has ramifications throughout our community.”

In addition to the restrictions on businesses, Barker also announced a number of changes to city operations, including:

• All employees over 60 in a public-facing role will work from home.

• Water cut-offs are suspended until further notice.

• For the next two weeks, Hub City Transit will suspend service on the GOLD and GREEN routes. Service on the BLUE route may see less frequent service than posted. Visit hubcitytransit.com/map for an interactive map featuring bus trackers.

• The Hattiesburg Police Department will take reports only by phone and email. These actions will not be available in person at the police department’s physical locations. To file a report, call (601) 545-4965. To request a copy of a report, call (601) 545-4964 or email records1@hattiesburgms.com.

• Anyone who calls dispatch services will be prompted to answer questions regarding symptoms of COVID-19. This is to help ensure that first responders are able to put on the proper protective equipment, including masks or gloves. People are urged to answer these questions honestly, but “I don’t know” is absolutely an acceptable answer.

The mayor also ordered changes to court procedures, including:

• All cases scheduled for the weeks of March 16-20 and March 23-27, including all previously rescheduled plea days, trial days, DUI days and other dockets will be rescheduled.

• All defendants scheduled for court cases during this time period are instructed to contact the court via phone at (601) 545-4938 or by email at municipalcourt@hattiesburgms.com to find out when their case will be rescheduled.

• Cases not reset within a reasonable amount of time will be reset by court order.

• All defendants wishing to plead guilty to traffic cases may do so by phone or email.

• The court will remain open to the public to allow for the filing of motions, charges, the seeking of domestic abuse protection orders and payments of fines and orders.

• Anyone who visits the court will be asked several screening questions before proceeding.