Due to rising COVID-19 cases and related hospitalizations, Hattiesburg Mayor Toby Barker has issued a new executive order mandating that all restaurants, bars and indoor entertainment venues must cease in-house service at 10 p.m. each night.
The new order goes into effect Wednesday, but delivery, drive-thru and to-go orders can still occur after that time.
“We have done this before during the July and August spike when system-wide hospitalization rose to over 100 (patients) and (intensive care) utilizations went to the high 30s,” Barker said in a video posted online Monday evening. “It’s important to know that our health system cannot handle that level of impact this time if it occurs … particularly as we head into winter months.”
The mayor said he “was not naive to think that COVID-19 is only transmitted after 10 p.m.,” but he said city officials are aware of the need to reduce unnecessary gatherings.
“Quite frankly, when alcohol is involved or we’re just having fun with friends, sometimes we get a little more careless about mask wearing and social distancing,” he added. “We made this same move to 10 p.m. at the end of July, and within several weeks, thanks to your efforts, hospitalization numbers came down, and that’s our hope now as well.”
The new order will run until Dec. 12, at which time Barker and his staff will again evaluate the situation.
According to the mayor, there are currently 78 patients hospitalized with the highly contagious virus in the Hattiesburg area. Of those 78 patients, 16 are in intensive care units at either Forrest General Hospital or Merit Health Wesley.
Over the weekend and on Monday, there were 252 new COVID-19 cases reported in Forrest and Lamar counties, with Forrest County reporting 43 cases on Saturday, 15 cases on Sunday and 65 cases on Monday. Lamar County reported 33 cases on Saturday, 16 cases on Sunday and 80 cases on Monday.
Since March, there have been 6,489 positive virus cases in Forrest and Lamar counties, with 3,671 cases in Forrest County and 2,818 in Lamar County.
The five-day average numbers have spiked, Barker said.
“We’ve hit some new ground, unfortunately … over 70 new cases,” he said. “The previous high was back on July 30; we got to 63.8, and that number is now over 70.”
The number of people who have received a positive test result in the past 14 days in Forrest County is at 384, and that number is 308 in Lamar County.
“That’s the number of potentially active cases, so we’re knocking at the door of 700, a place we haven’t been in since the first part of August,” Barker said.
A week ago, those inside 14-day numbers were at 272 cases in Forrest County and 213 cases in Lamar County. Hospitalizations have increased by 16 patients since last week, according to state Health Department and local data.
“There are several things this week that are very concerning to us,” Barker said.
He noted that the city’s “red line” of area hospitalizations was 70, and the area surpassed that number by eight this week.
“This morning, there were six beds available at one hospital … of course, there were a lot of discharges, but we fill back up in the evening,” Barker said.
Barker said the city’s overall goals remain the same: to protect vulnerable populations, prevent the overrun of the health care system by slowing the spread and to prioritize public health while giving the private sector space to operate creatively.
“We want to try and keep things open while we prioritize public health,” he said.
In order to accomplish those goals, the city is working to make testing widely available, by watching the daily data, by listening to various publics and by enforcing local mask mandates.
Barker added that Forrest and Lamar counties accounted for 20% of new positive cases reported throughout the state on Monday.
Additionally, the five-day average is at its highest point since March, he said.
“Having that many cases on a Monday does not bode well for us going into this week,” Barker said.
He urged the public to make responsible decisions in the coming weeks.
“When you make plans for Thanksgiving, please use common sense,” he said. “When you decide to go shopping for Black Friday, consider the risks, and act accordingly. Wear your masks, correctly and consistently; practice social distancing, and avoid large crowds. Help us protect the vulnerable and help us help our health care system.”