Barker sets customer limits at essential retail, closes certain non-essential stores to help slow coronavirus

By HASKEL BURNS,

With the cases of COVID-19 in the local community almost tripling over a three-day period – rising from five presumptive positive cases to 14 in Forrest County as of Tuesday night – Mayor Toby Barker has issued another executive order that limits the number of customers at Hattiesburg businesses such as grocery stores and pharmacies, and closes certain non-essential establishments until at least April 30.

During a Facebook Live post late Tuesday night, Barker strongly recommended that businesses such as gas stations, laundromats, automotive and bicycle repair shops, and liquor and beer stores limit customers to 10 or less at any given time. Establishments such as grocery stores, dollar stores, hardware stores, convenience stores, pharmacies and building supply stores will implement measures to limit access to a certain number of customers at any time, with that number corresponding to the square footage in the stores’ sales areas.

“We want to thank those who have proactively done this on their own and agreed to do this,” Barker said. “Lil’ Butcher Shoppe on Veterans Memorial started doing this last week, Sam’s Club started doing it (Tuesday) morning, and we know that our local grocery stores will also start doing it (Wednesday) and we appreciate their partnership.

“Furthermore, they have agreed to not allow lines to form outside of their entrance. When the doors open, people will still be at their vehicles, and then they will come into the stores. They have also agreed to create at least 6 feet of space between customers in and around checkout lines, to promote social distancing to keep people from clustering near the cash registers.”

Barker also recommended that financial institutions such as insurance and payroll offices close their interiors and make transactions by appointment only. Those institutions will still be allowed to serve clients through drive-through windows, as most banks are currently doing.

Services that require close human contact – such as nail salons, tattoo parlors, spas and massage parlors – will be required to close. Barber shops and hair salons can continue to operate by appointment only, and the practitioner must wear a protective mask. In addition, those businesses will not be allowed to provide a seated waiting area for customers, and a maximum of one customer at a time will be allowed in the building.

Non-essential retail, such as clothing stores, florists, car dealerships and sporting goods retailers, will be limited to curbside service, pickup sales or appointment only.

“We fully recognize the cost of shutting off economic activity,” Barker said. “We take these sorts of decisions very seriously, and since the start we knew sacrifices would have to be made, and we knew there would be some real economic damage done.

“There are many people whom this pandemic will affect in a real and costly way, and these are costs that must be acknowledged. These are the individuals and families who will be making huge sacrifices for the public health of our community.”

Barker said as of Tuesday night, Mississippi had the 12th-highest rate of infection in the country, with up to 320 cases. Officials expect more positive cases in the near future, with more than 100 pending tests between Merit Health Wesley, Forrest General Hospital and Hattiesburg Clinic.

“But know this: we as a city can set policies that hopefully lead to good, collective outcomes of flattening the curve,” Barker said. “But the ultimate success of whether we slow the spread of coronavirus in the Hattiesburg community depends on you.

“You ultimately decide on whether or not you make good decisions with your health and with the health of those you come into contact with. The reason that the city acts in the form of policy and executive order – acts that have devastating consequences for your fellow citizens – the reason we do that is to enable you to make better decisions.”