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Oxford Board of Aldermen vote to scale back indoor gatherings

The City of Oxford took a step back in its reopening plan on Monday, but not as large of a step as initially anticipated.

During a recessed meeting, the Board of Aldermen voted to scale back the number of people allowed at indoor gatherings due to COVID-19. The number is returning back to Phase I of the City’s Serving Oxford Safely Recovery Plan, with 20 people allowed in one space if social distancing is possible, 10 people if it is not.

The change does not pertain to current occupancy rates allowed inside businesses or restaurants.

This was the decision made after discussing several other potential changes to the recovery plan, including implementing stricter penalties on businesses found to not be in compliance with the City’s COVID-19 orders.

Before deciding anything, Mayor Robyn Tannehill had Oxford police chief Jeff McCutchen provide an update on the number of compliance checks and citations issued since last Tuesday. This was requested by the Board last week, before they would take action on any new penalties toward businesses.

McCutchen said OPD administered 240 compliance checks since June 30, with seven citations issued. None of the citations issued went to restaurants or bars, which McCutchen said seemed to be following the orders put in place. The businesses that did have citations were due to employees not being in compliance and not customers in the stores, he said.

“The majority of that is employees,” McCutchen said. “It’s not so much not manning the front door and it seems to be the public is doing a pretty good job. We’re running into a (problem with) businesses, where employees are not being masked up or having to follow that policy.”

On July 1, Oxford’s emergency management director Jimmy Allgood proposed a plan to shut down businesses for 24 to 48 hours if found to not be in compliance with the COVID-19 orders. A similar order was passed by Jackson last week, but on Monday, the Board decided to not take any further action on the issue.

One reason was due to the possible legal issues that could arise out of passing and enforcing such an order. Pope Mallette, the City’s attorney, spoke on the issue and voiced his concerns.

“People are entitled, businesses are entitled, to some due process before a punishment is imposed,” Mallette said. “My thinking is it’s problematic, based on a citation alone, to close a business down or issue ultimately what is the defined punishment (without due process). If you had five municipal judges who could hear it that night and could shut down the next day it would be ideal. Without that ability I just think it’s difficult.”

The discussion then turned to amending hours that bars and restaurants could open their indoor seating and dining areas. Last month, Governor Tate Reeves issued a new executive order allowing all bars and restaurants to resume normal operating hours.

Alderman Janice Antonow proposed a motion to return to a previous order of shutting down indoor dining and seating areas at restaurants and bars at 10 p.m. Any restaurant that could provide curbside, drive-thru or delivery service could keep that open past 10 p.m.

“We know the gatherings in bars are a problem,” Antonow said. “I feel like it should go back to closing at 10 p.m. I think that would help the situation greatly. Especially when the students get back.

“What I’m hearing is that a lot of the classes are going to be online. A lot of the instructors are very reluctant, given the number of young people who are contracting this COVID-19, to teach in a classroom with 50 people in it. So, the students won’t have to get up at 8 0’clock in the morning to go to class so they will be in the bars (the night before).”

The vote on Antonow’s motion was split 3-3 between the Board. Aldermen Kesha Howell-Atkinson and Preston Taylor voted with Antonow in favor of closing the bars down at 10 p.m., while aldermen Jason Bailey, Mark Huelse and John Morgan voted to keep them open as-is in what they said was an attempt to keep people from going to house parties and exceeding the number of people allowed at indoor gatherings. Alderman Rick Addy was not present at the meeting.

With the vote deadlocked, Tannehill became the deciding vote, and voted to keep bars and restaurants open past 10 p.m.

“I think that moving forward, we just need to be stronger in enforcement,” Tannehill said after casting her vote. “Chief (McCutchen) and I will have another conversation about the bars and about ways to enforce that after 10 o’clock. My feeling is that, if they aren’t open at all past 10 0’clock, then we lose people at house parties in my opinion, and I think that’s a lot harder to police.”

At the beginning of the meeting, Allgood gave an update on COVID-19 cases in Lafayette County. As of 6 p.m. on Sunday, Lafayette County had a total of 393 cases, with 57 of them being active as of July 5. Allgood said the Mississippi State Department of Health was beginning to provide data of active cases in each county that they will go by that data moving forward, though some of those cases are being rolled off the day they’re reported or within a day or two.

Allgood also provided further case data from area urgent care clinics that are reporting directly to City Hall. As of 6 a.m. on Monday, there had been a total of 1,836 tests administered at eight of the clinics reporting. Of those, 463 tests came back as positive, with 305 of them being residents of Lafayette County and 158 of them non-residents.

Roughly one in four people who are going into clinics to get tested are testing positive, according to Allgood.