The Greenwood City Council’s unanimous decision to prohibit most gatherings of more than 10 people in order to curtail the spread of COVID-19 has elicited a variety of reactions from residents.
The council made the move at a special called meeting Monday. The meeting, which was held on Zoom, an online teleconference platform, and livestreamed on Facebook, was viewed almost 4,000 times.
The mandate is in effect for 15 days and can be shortened or lengthened by the council.
Some people commented on Facebook that the city’s actions aren’t nearly enough and that the city should be put on a lockdown to help halt the spread of the novel coronavirus.
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Robert Moore, a teacher, said that the vote for the resolution was a bit late but that late is better than never. “The resolution to ban gatherings of more than 10 people is right in line,” he said.
The directive follows the recommendations of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Mississippi State Department of Health as a way to slow the spread of the new coronavirus.
According to the Department of Health, 249 people in Mississippi, including nine in Leflore County, have tested positive so far for the virus that causes COVID-19, a respiratory disease. One Mississipi death, in Hancock County, has been attributed to the virus.
Moore did say that he wished the council would provide direction that encouraged day care providers to remain open to take care of children whose parents work at businesses that are deemed essential. Such businesses, as defined by the city’s mandate, include health care facilities, pharmacies, grocery stores, convenience stores, takeout and delivery restaurants and banks.
The city’s mandate limits gatherings to no more than 10 people at institutions such as retail stores, bars, churches, entertainment venues and gatherings involving fraternal and civic organizations, to name a few examples listed in the resolution. It also applies to funerals, weddings and other social gatherings.
Restaurants are not explicitly listed, but Mayor Carolyn McAdams said they fall under the category of entertainment venues.
She added that she’s encouraging all restaurants in town to offer only takeout. Many restaurants have complied.
Does the ban of gatherings of more than 10 at churches violate a person’s right to religious worship? The freedom to assemble peacefully and worship are both protected by Mississippi law.
Matt Steffey, an attorney and a professor at the Mississippi College School of Law, said the Mississippi Constitution is designed to be more protective of religious exercises than the U.S. Constitution.
According to the state’s code, the government can “burden a person’s exercise of religion” only in limited circumstances. “A court would have to decide whether the restrictions serve a compelling interest, which is no problem under the current circumstances, and that the ordinance is the ‘least restrictive means,’” Steffey said by email.
The part about “least restrictive means” would be more difficult, since “how a court views this will likely again turn on whether it thinks the list of exceptions is so long that the city can’t justify applying the prohibition to churches,” Steffey said.
Steffey said that a court proceeding over the mandate would last longer than the mandate itself and that in a time of a growing health crisis, “a court might well decide to enforce the ordinance and err on the side of protecting public safety, even at the expense of religious worship. A court might well decide that creating an exception for religious worship presents serious, widespread risks to public health.”
On Sunday, several churches in Greenwood streamed their services online in lieu of in-person gatherings.
John Pittman Hey, who conducts Sunday services at Grace Bible Church, said it’s up to a church, rather than the government, to decide whether services should be held. Grace Bible Church met in person on Sunday. Hey said the average attendance is around 10 people.
“It’s really a shame when government officials have so little fear of God that they’re imposing their power to shut down worship,” he said.
Hey added that the church will decide on a week-to-week basis whether to meet in person.
The Rev. Peter Gray, the outgoing rector of the Episcopal Church of the Nativity, had a different view. “I fully support the decision of the City Council, and I’m grateful for the leadership of the mayor,” he said.
The Church of the Nativity held an online service Sunday.
Gray said he trusted the advice of Greenwood medical professionals as well as federal health officials that “the most effective way for us to care for another as a community is to limit our gatherings.”
Many cities have implemented different measures of community isolation in order to “flatten the curve,” or slow down the spread of the coronavirus so a high number of infected people don’t overwhelm hospitals and health care workers all at once.
There are two types of curves — a bell curve and a “flat” curve. The bell curve means that the number of people infected with the coronavirus has overwhelmed a health care system’s capacity, meaning that doctors may decide who deserves treatment first. A flat curve means that the number of coronavirus cases has not overwhelmed a system’s capacity.
“In a lot of different ways, our staying home and our staying apart is an act of solidarity with our health care professionals,” Gray said.
Staying at home also helps protect those who are most at risk of becoming severely ill if infected with the coronavirus, such as the elderly and those with existing health problems, he said.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. The vast majority of people recover from the new virus. According to the World Health Organization, people with mild illness recover in about two weeks, while those with more severe illness may take three to six weeks to recover.
The city’s mandate also directs businesses and governmental entities that remain open to “implement appropriate safeguards” to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Those precautions, as spelled out in the order, include “mandating social distancing, sending home sick employees and actively encouraging sick employees to stay at home, separating and sending home employees who appear to have respiratory illness symptoms, emphasizing work-from-home policies where possible, mandating respiratory etiquette and proper hand hygiene, maintaining clean and sanitary workplaces, (and) cautioning employees regarding travel.” The directive exempts from strict enforcement of this provision city departments, health care facilities, and businesses deemed essential, such as pharmacies, grocery stores, convenience stores, takeout and delivery restaurants and banks.
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