Reeves’s order for minimum safeguards failed to note localities can set tougher standards
By TED CARTER
Mayors and other local officials around Mississippi are cleaning up on aisle 7 after mishandled communications from new governor Tate Reeves’ last week left them a mess of confusion about covid-19 restrictions.
As the reality of the pandemic and its economic consequences set in last week, Reeves ordered cities and counties to adhere to social-distancing rules less stringent than ones localities already enacted. For instance, many local governments had ordered restaurants closed for dining in. Reeves, in his order, insisted they could remain open, as long as no more than 10 patrons occupied the restaurant at one time.
He also provided a lengthy list of businesses deemed essential and allowed to operate. He designated gun stores as essential but not a Fondren women’s health clinic that stands as the state’s last abortion provider.
The same 10-person standard was to apply to non-essential retailers and restaurants. Oxford and Jackson had ordered activities suspended or operations shut down.
Oxford restaurants, though, could provide pick-up and delivery services. Church services, wedding, funerals and civic gatherings are limited to 10 people, the city’s emergency ordinance says.
As the calls came in to the governor’s office from local leaders confused about their authority and options it carried, Reeves clarified: His order was never meant to supersede stricter local rules.
It was to be a floor of sorts, the governor’s office later said. The problem was his initial order never specified this.
In Tupelo, Mayor Jason Shelton followed with a press conference soon after to lament that the restrictions adopted for the Northeast Mississippi city would not be enforced and instead the city would follow Reeves’ order.
Not having heard from Reeves ahead of the order, Oxford Mayor Robyn Tannehill and Jackson Mayor Chowke Lumumba wanted their information to come straight from the governor.
Never mind the order, Reeves reportedly told them. Local governments under the doctrine of home rule can adopt measures more stringent than those of the state, Tannehill and Lumumba said the governor told them.
“We’re going to enforce restrictions we have adopted and passed,” Tannehill said. “No one knows better than local leaders what their citizens want.”
Oxford, a city of about 25,000 residents and around 20,000 college students, knew a couple weeks ago it had a huge vulnerability it must address: Thousands of thirsty, fun-seeking University of Mississippi students and 31 drinking establishments in town just off campus.
That was an invitation to community spread of the deadly worldwide virus, according to Tannehill.
Meanwhile, radio silence came from the governor’s office. “We moved quickly,” Tannehill said. “We saw crowds gathering in our entertainment venues.”
The non-communication from Reeves “was my frustration,” she said. Then came the sudden order that appeared to nullify Oxford’s emergency measures.
“If you are going to make a rule, have a conversation first,” said the mayor, who owned an adverting and marketing agency before becoming a full-time mayor.
She said what she was witnessing from Reeves was an undoing of “the hard work our board put in place.”
Jackson Mayor Chokwe Lumumba said in an interview of MSNBC Saturday that he heard from mayors across the state befuddled over Reeves’ order. A call to Reeves brought a clarification that local government measures trumped his order.
“We agreed they’d serve as a minimal guideline,” Lumumba said.
The mayor credited Reeves for trying to lead from the top. But he must do more in the way of ensuring increased uniformity in Mississippi’s strategy to counter the coronavirus, Lumumba said in a interview with Al Sharpton on his MSNBC show, Politics Nation.
“This pandemic requires that we have a unified and uniform policy that addresses all of the state,” Lumumba said. “Our communities are too inter-connected for us to be doing this in a piecemeal fashion.”
Like her Jackson counterpart, Tannehill said Reeves must do more to ensure residents of communities with regulations laxer than Oxford’s don’t bring their infections into the city.
The concern is further escalated by the roles Jackson and Oxford have as regional hubs for shopping and health care.
The governor should know, Tannehill said, that without a statewide stay-at-home order, people will be coming in who could be carriers of the virus.
“I wish they had the same rules in place,” she said.
“Until that happens, our county will continue to make the hard decisions on its own,” Tannehill said.
Those hard decisions have inflicted pain across the spectrum of Oxford’s businesses. Yet instead of complaints from the Chamber of Commerce, businesses are encouraging Oxford to do whatever it takes to maintain a safe city, according to Tannehill. She said Lafayette County of which Oxford is a part has adopted identical covid-19 restrictions.
“Everyone wants it to be more strict than it is now,” the mayor said of local business owners. “We’ve not had push back from businesses.”
The laments she has heard, she said, are more like, “What are we going to do if we can’t pay the rent.”
Businesses are mostly worried about prospects for securing U.S. Small Business Administration loans and helping laid off workers get unemployment insurance compensation, Tannehill said.
“Right now, our Chamber is focused on how we get to the end of this,” she added.
In the meantime, state government as well as Oxford and all other Mississippi cities see lots of fiscal distress ahead, with the first dose of pain arriving in June when Oxford receives its share of sales tax collections for March. “The hardest times are coming,” she said.
Further, noted Tannehill, “Our 2 percent food and beverage and hotel tax will be nonexistent.”
Oxford has suspended work projects such as water, sewage and electrical upgrades and put off design work on a new municipal swimming pool. Even maintenance repairs to the current pool are on hold, the mayor said.
“We’ve cancelled all projects on the books that have not already been started,” she said. Suspensions include purchase of new equipment as well.
Oxford has laid off seasonal workers who mow grass on city property and keep the sidewalks litter free. “We are tightening our belts everywhere we can,” Tannehill said.
Volunteers from 16 houses of worship are making sure, however, that children who get their breakfast and lunch at school continue to get them, Tannehill said. Further, Oxford has helped to ensure the elderly are fed by having transit workers deliver Meals on Wheels.
And in another move to keep food flowing, non-essential city workers are running a local food pantry, according to Tannehill.
Citizens haven’t been shy about asking to help out, the mayor added, and recalled a call she got from a resident who travels for his job but is sequestered at home.
“Tell me where to start mowing,” the mayor said the resident told her.
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