The Columbus City Council voted Friday to end social distancing and capacity restrictions for businesses and restaurants, though the city’s mask mandate will stay in place.
The council’s new resolution, recommended by City Attorney Jeff Turnage, encourages but does not mandate residents and businesses adhere to six feet of social distancing and says the only capacity restrictions in place for facilities will be those required by the city fire marshal and building officials. The proposal also reopens the city-operated Trotter Convention Center downtown, which closed last year after the COVID-19 pandemic began.
Turnage said he thought the proposal would be good for businesses and protect the city from lawsuits, after Gov. Tate Reeves ended a statewide mask mandate, lifted all restrictions on businesses and opened facilities around the state to full capacity on Tuesday.
“I thought it might be wise to revisit (building and business occupancy limits and distance regulations) at least so you understand if we get into the distance regulation business, it could affect profitability of businesses in a lot bigger way than just requiring a mask,” Turnage said during the meeting. “Because a mask is maybe seen by a lot of people as an inconvenience, but if you limit the number of people in the store or restaurant or other facility, then you limit the money-making ability, and that concerns me from a claims standpoint, if we were to lose a claim about the regulation.”
The proposal passed 3-2, with Ward 1 Councilwoman Ethel Stewart, Ward 2 Councilman Joseph Mickens and Ward 5 Councilman Stephen Jones voting for the measure, and Ward 3 Councilman Charlie Box and Ward 4 Councilman Pierre Beard opposing.
Both Stewart and Mickens said they were happy with easing restrictions on businesses as long as the mask mandate remains in place.
“I’m not in favor of lifting the mask right now, I’m telling you guys,” Mickens said. “I can deal with everything else … with the restaurants, with coming in the stores.”
Stewart agreed that relaxing business restrictions could help protect the city from future lawsuits by business owners who claim they’ve lost revenue from having to limit customers.
“The only thing that has seemed to work (to help prevent the spread of COVID) is wearing the mask,” Stewart said. “We don’t want to get into legal implications by telling people (to) social distance. But as the city council, I would like to see us continue to wear the masks.”
But Box told The Dispatch after the meeting he wishes the council had lifted the mask mandate as well.
“Just to get back to normal and encourage them to wear the mask but take the restriction off, is what my hope was we could do,” he said.
Beard did not respond to calls from The Dispatch requesting comment on the meeting.
In addition to lifting the distancing and capacity restrictions, the resolution continues to mandate what Turnage called “common sense measures” such as businesses sending sick employees home, along with frequent hand washing and sanitizing of facilities.
Customers who are eating and drinking or doing business at a place that would make mask-wearing impossible, such as a dentist’s office or barber shop, are exempt from wearing masks, as are children under the age of 6.
After passing the resolution, the council unanimously voted to reopen the city’s community centers.
Response from the business community
Wilson Beck, director of the Columbus Lowndes Chamber of Commerce, said the chamber hasn’t received an overwhelming consensus from area businesses on masks or social distancing guidelines one way or the other. Moreover, he said, with Mississippi being only one of a handful of states to lift mask mandates, it has become an “experimental state,” and he doesn’t think many businesses or customers will change their behavior.
“I don’t think a lot of the public is going to be comfortable with going out in public without wearing a mask and going into enclosed spaces without wearing masks,” he said.
He added he personally thinks those who shop without masks will be the minority, but many businesses’ employees have already been told not to engage with those customers.
However, with the loosening of other restrictions, Beck said restaurants will likely take the opportunity to operate at full capacity.
Several restaurants in Columbus are already making moves to do just that. Eat With Us Restaurant Group, which owns several restaurants in North Mississippi, including Harvey’s, The Grill, Sweet Peppers Deli and Smackers in Columbus, has gradually begun moving tables back into its restaurants to allow more customers to eat inside at once.
“We’re not doing it immediately,” Eat With Us Sales and Marketing Director Peyton Scrivner said. “We actually took tables out when we shut down (when the pandemic started). We took tables out so that we could stay at our 25-percent occupancy, and so we are just gradually moving it back in to get to 100 percent. But like I said, we’re not doing it all at once.”
Main Street Director Barbara Bigelow said she feels the council’s decision Friday balances safety with the needs of businesses to keep operating.
“I am so glad to see the city council ease some restrictions while still trying to maintain a safe environment for our citizens, allowing our downtown businesses to return to some semblance of normal,” she told The Dispatch in a text message Friday.
Others in the business community think the council should have lifted more restrictions. Blaine Walters, who owns downtown wedding business Bride and Groom with his wife Corie Walters and who has been vocal in his opposition to the city’s mask mandate, said he was “very disappointed” with the council’s decision.
“So much shopping has gone online now, and that was even before the pandemic,” he said. “Since the pandemic, I’m sure it has jumped so drastically as to the amount of online shopping, and I do think part of it is because people either … don’t want to wear the masks, or if they choose not to wear the masks, they don’t want to be harassed. So I do think that it’s just another cut into an already difficult economy.”