With No State Mandate, Mississippi Mayors Using Patchwork of COVID-19 Safety Options

Tupelo Mayor Jason Shelton - Mississippi Free Press
Tupelo Mayor Jason Shelton said Saturday that he is frustrated and taking COVID-19 safety matters into his own hands after Gov. Tate Reeves “abdicated” his “leadership role in a state of emergency.” He added, “We will no longer wait in Tupelo."

Frustrated with what he called a failure of Mississippi’s top leadership on COVID-19, Tupelo Mayor Jason Shelton shut down an automobile auction in his city on Saturday after it had already drawn a large crowd. The auction at the Tupelo Furniture Market came at a time when medical experts are urging Americans to avoid unnecessary public events and groups.

“From the beginning of this crisis until today, I have been waiting on the governor of the state of Mississippi to lead,” Shelton said in a press statement on Saturday, referring to Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves. “He has abdicated that leadership role in a state of emergency, and we will no longer wait in Tupelo.”

To date, Reeves has chosen not to give a state directive on social distancing, group size and which businesses and activities should shut down, as governors of other states facing a growing coronavirus crisis have done.

Shelton’s order on Saturday also banned all gatherings in the city of 50 people or more. The mayor previously issued an executive order on March 19 requiring restaurants to limit in-house dining to less than 50% of their typical capacity and allowing them and other businesses to set up tents to facilitate curbside pickup and carry-out services. Under the order, grocery-store employees must begin wearing latex gloves.

Starting Monday, all Tupelo restaurants must stop offering in-house dining and move to only curbside, carryout or delivery services. Gas stations and small retail businesses will only be allowed to admit 10 patrons at a time. Grocery-store employees in the city will be required to wear latex gloves.

“We will issue more executive orders due to the State’s failure to mandate any safety precautions outside of the school system across the state,” Shelton tweeted Saturday, referring to Gov. Reeves’ decision to close the state’s public schools until at least mid-April.

Since announcing the state’s first case on March 11, the Mississippi State Department of Health has confirmed at least 140 cases and one death in the state–popular Bay St. Louis barber Howard “Fade” Pickens—though an ongoing shortage of testing supplies makes it difficult to get an accurate count.

Five of those cases are in Lee County in northeast Mississippi where Tupelo is the county seat. Shelton tweeted Saturday night that he is working to help develop a consistent COVID-19 safety plan across the rest of Lee County.

As the number of confirmed cases continues to rise, mayors and local leaders like Shelton are left to implement a patchwork of measures to try to combat the coronavirus’ spread throughout their own communities, some more strict than others.

Oxford Mayor Robin Tannehill - Mississippi Free Press
Oxford Mayor Robyn Tannehill is using social-media networks to urge residents to take social-distancing measures seriously amid the COVID-19 pandemic. “We want the community to know that we will return to normal. Your level of social distancing will determine when,” she said. Photo courtesy City of Oxford.

Oxford Mayor: ‘This is a Critical Deal’

Oxford Mayor Robyn Tannehill is concerned that too many people still think COVID-19, the novel coronavirus, is “no big deal.”

“This is a critical deal,” she said in a Facebook video message to the town’s residents on Thursday after announcing Lafayette County’s first confirmed coronavirus case. The Mississippi State Department of Health confirmed a second case there Saturday morning.

Like local leaders across Mississippi during this time of social distancing and isolation from public spaces, Tannehill has increasingly relied on online videos to communicate with her city’s residents amid the ongoing pandemic.

“While today is the first time that we can positively confirm the coronavirus in our community, we have known this day was coming, and we have prepared for it for weeks,” she said Thursday. “The safety and well-being of every citizen of Lafayette County must remain our top priority. And we all share in the responsibility of finding ways to keep this virus from spreading.”

Oxford ordered restaurants and bars to cease all dine-in services starting last Wednesday. Businesses still have the option to offer curbside pickup, delivery or drive-thru options. Fetcht, a local food delivery service in Oxford that allows people to order from a number of local restaurants online, is still offering delivery from a number of restaurants in town.

In a statement released late Friday, MSDH recommended that all restaurants and bars suspend dine-in service in order to help slow the spread of COVID-19, “effective immediately,” adding that they can still offer carry-out or pick-up service. MSDH also recommended Friday that Mississippians “not attend funerals, weddings, church services or other community or social events with an expected attendance of more than 10 people.”

But the State of Mississippi has not yet ordered non-necessary businesses to close or prohibited dine-in service, choosing to leave that to local officials. That means a patchwork of official responses and orders even as the official cases of COVID-19 increased by 75% and the number of countries with at least one confirmed case rose from 32 on Friday to 45 by Saturday morning. (Update: By Saturday morning, Mississippi cases had increased 159% since Friday to 207 cases.)

Earlier this week, the Oxford Board of Aldermen voted to shut down indoor dining and bar service at restaurants and bars throughout the town for at least 15 days. How people handle the crisis going forward and whether or not they practice isolation and distancing measures, Tannehill said in Thursday’s video message, will determine how long the precautionary measures must last.

“We want the community to know that we will return to normal. Your level of social distancing will determine when,” she said.

As part of Tannehill’s broadcast on Thursday, Dr. Jason Waller, an emergency-room physician in Lafayette County, offered his advice.

“This is not the time for panic and chaos, but for us to be calm and diligent in our practices, especially social distancing, rigorous hygiene, hand washing, and we need to get that message out to the community and we need to do our part. This is a very important time, and especially for young people,” Waller said. “This does not mean that we can’t go outside. We can go outside and enjoy some of the warmer weather these days, and I would encourage that, just to lift everyone’s spirits.”

Ocean Springs Mayor: No Time for a ‘Hurricane Party’

On March 19, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey ordered all beaches along her state’s coast closed as spring breakers flooded into vacation hotspots like Orange Beach and Gulf Shores. But beaches remain open in counties along the Mississippi Gulf Coast, where MSDH has confirmed at least 19 cases of COVID-19.

Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves “has no intention of shutting down the Coast at this time nor anywhere else,” Mississippi Sen. Joel Carter, whose district includes parts of Gulfport, tweeted Saturday. “The virus can live on surfaces but only for a very short time. Practice social distancing, wash your hands regularly and don’t go to NOLA.”

The coronavirus can, in fact, live on some surfaces, including plastic and stainless steel, for several days.

In the coastal Mississippi town of Ocean Springs, 33-year-old Mayor Shea Dobson has ordered all in-house dining at restaurants and bars closed, but they can continue offering curbside pickup and delivery options. On March 20, the mayor also closed all of the city’s bars, social clubs, performance venues, public parks, harbors and marinas. Residents will no longer be able to take part in gatherings of more than 10 people, and all residents must keep at least 6 feet from one another when inside any building or facility that is open to the public..

Dobson is using social-media livestreams to call on his town’s residents to take drastic measures for the sake of public health. Like Tannehill, he worries that too many people still are not taking the necessary steps to avoid furthering the spread of COVID-19. By Saturday morning, MSDH had confirmed five cases in Jackson County, where Ocean Springs is located.

“This is the Gulf Coast. We are used to emergency situations where things get shut down. However, normally it comes from a hurricane—a natural disaster,” Dobson said during a March 18 Facebook live broadcast. “And I think sometimes because we’re so used to living the Gulf Coast and having our day disrupted, we get into this hurricane mentality routine where, ‘OK, things are shut down and an emergency is happening,’ but we still have this mentality of going and hanging out and having a hurricane party.”

But COVID-19 is not like a hurricane, Dobson said, and requires different kinds of preparation and a different kind of response. “This is not a hurricane coming in. This is a disease. … This is something where we need to get away from one another,” he said.

Echoing medical experts, Dobson urged his city’s residents to practice hand-washing and social-distancing techniques, like avoiding public places as much as possible and, when necessary to go out, keeping at least 6 feet away from others. He said he was particularly concerned that younger people in Ocean Springs are not taking the coronavirus seriously enough. While young people have a high rate of survival, they can easily act as asymptomatic carriers, spreading the disease to older and vulnerable people with pre-existing conditions. The mortality rate for people over 80 is about 15%.

“I want to implore the younger people—I get it. I think I may get it sometimes more than some other local elected officials or any elected official really because I am myself a millennial,” Dobson said Wednesday. “I understand we feel like sometimes we’re a little bit more untouchable. Even though it may be very, very likely that you’re not going to die from this or get severe symptoms, you can still carry this.”

“It’s our elderly that are at the biggest risk for this,” the Ocean Springs mayor continued. “So look, everybody my age and around my age just needs to understand that even though we may not have all the symptoms, we could still be carrying it and pass it on to our loved ones. Don’t put yourself in harm’s way unnecessarily. Just think about your parents and grandparents when you go about your daily lives and stay diligent.”

Today the Mississippi State Department of Health added age-demographic figures about the 140 cases it has now announced. About half of those are under age 50, and the 18-29 age group has only two fewer cases so far than those over age 60 and more than the age 50-59 age group. In France, people under age 60 are accounting for more than half of serious, life-threatening cases of coronavirus.

Dr. Jeff Dennis: Young People ‘The Vectors For A Lot of the Spread’

In the Oxford mayor’s video broadcast on Thursday, Dr. Jeff Dennis, an internal medicine doctor in Lafayette County, similarly raised concerns that young people who may not get sick themselves may transmit the virus to elderly people.

“The older people we know are going to be the ones most affected by this disease,” Dennis said. “The young people have a critical role in this. They are the vectors for a lot of the spread of this disease. They might not feel any kind of symptoms but yet be carrying it from household to household, and so that is a challenge. This could be the most important role you have in this community in your life as far as a citizen of this town.”

Dennis emphasized that getting outside is good if done carefully. “Getting out and going to the woods, going to the park while keeping your social distance is great,” he said. “But riding in cars with other kids or going to people’s houses right now is not ok right now. I think being smart we can overcome this.”

Still, Mayor Dobson encouraged Ocean Springs residents to help when they can.

“If you have an elderly neighbor or somebody who has a weakened immune system or some kind of underlying health situation going on that would discourage them from going out in public to buy groceries or something like that, offer to help them, please,” he said.

That can mean dropping something they need at the door, carefully disinfected, of course. “These are the times we need to come together, keep your distance obviously, but come together and help people out,” Dobson said.

Dobson said his office was working with local restaurants to help facilitate safe food delivery or curbside pickup options. Sometime within the next week, he said the local school district will open a kitchen to serve free and reduced lunches for students, after public schools in the area closed their buildings earlier this week after Gov. Tate Reeves ordered the closure of public schools statewide.

The Ocean Springs School District announced Thursday that students will soon resume learning through an online-only system soon. Physical classrooms are closed until at least April 17.

Clarksdale Mayor: 10-Person Limit Includes Church, Weddings, Funerals

Chuck Espy, mayor of Clarksdale, urged residents to avoid groups of more than 10 people.

In Coahoma County, the City of Clarksdale broadcast a message from city leaders on Wednesday, March 18. With more than a dozen local officials behind him, Clarksdale Mayor Chuck Espy urged residents to wash their hands, practice social distancing and not to congregate in groups of more than 10 people in a single location. As of Saturday morning, MSDH has confirmed five cases in the county.

“Now today, we have more than 10 people in this room. We thought it was important so you can see that this team has not only been assembled, but that we are preparing to make our people safe,” Espy said.

Then, the Delta town’s mayor explained how broadly that applies.

“This is all spectrum of socializing. We’re talking about weddings, we’re talking about funerals, we’re talking about church gatherings—any people that are gathering over the number of 10,” Espy said. “We also want to engage our restaurants, and we know that our businesses are vital to the city.”

Residents, Espy said, should “shelter in place” as much as possible.

“We know that a lot of our people still need to go to work, and we know that you have to pay your bills. But we are asking our citizens that if you do not have to come out of your home, stay,” he said.

On Thursday, Espy took a stronger approach than many of the mayors around the state to date, one similar to Jackson Mayor Chokwe A. Lumumba’s executive order the day before prohibiting gatherings of more than 10 people in the capital city.

In Clarksdale, Espy was explicit that the 10-person maximum is no longer just a suggestion, issuing a proclamation that banned gatherings of 10 or more. The mayor said he was not ordering businesses to close, but said they should implement delivery or curbside services to avoid social interactions in public as much as possible.

Down in Jackson, the owners of Mangia Bene restaurants had closed their three popular restaurants completely on Wednesday. Co-owner Jeff Good explained in a Facebook post that he did not see how to protect the safety of staff or patrons if they continued to offer curbside or takeout service, deciding to give up the fight until the crisis has passed.

“We have tried to modify our service each day, to meet the public health needs of our community,” Good wrote on Facebook. “We are all believers that the only way to quell the coming storm is to follow the directions of our public health government officials. #flattenthecurve is a real phenomenon that can and will save lives. We get it, and we just didn’t see how we could still prepare food and deliver it to you curbside, since by definition we were not practicing any social distancing and had many folks involved in the make, bake and take process.”

Meantime, in the Delta and other places around Mississippi, the social-distancing debate was moving past restaurant service by week’s end.

About 30 minutes southwest of Clarksdale at the Bolivar Medical Center in Cleveland, hospital officials announced Thursday that adult patients will no longer be permitted any visitors at all. For pediatric patients, only two visitors will be allowed, and both must be parents, legal guardians, or caregivers.

“We know these increased precautions may seem concerning,” hospital CEO Rob Marshall wrote in a letter. “We do not want to cause alarm, but we do want to send a clear message to our community that we are prepared, responding appropriately, and are committed to protecting the well-being of our patients, visitors, employees, and community. These increased safety measures do not mean that you cannot access the hospital or your providers.”
​​
Hattiesburg Mayor: ‘Potential For This to Carry on Two to Three Months is Real’

In Hattiesburg, which is located in Forrest County where MSDH confirmed the state’s first three cases more than a week ago, Mayor Toby Barker issued an updated executive order on Saturday closing all indoor dining services.

Like Oxford, Hattiesburg restaurants, bars and lounges will still have the option to offer food delivery, pick-up, or drive-thru services. Barker ordered all gyms, fitness centers, and entertainment venues like bowling alleys, skating rinks, and movie theaters to close as well, and prohibited all gatherings of more than 10 people for any event—including church services, weddings and even funerals.

“Funerals shall also be limited to 10 or fewer people,” the mayor’s office said. “Graveside services are encouraged; however, indoor services and viewings are permitted, as long as there are 10 or fewer people inside at one time. Funeral home directors are encouraged to livestream services for those who cannot attend.”

Barker said he made the decision to update the executive order, which previously only limited the number of people who could dine in at restaurants and required 6 feet of separation for all tables, after speaking to local medical professionals.

“The potential for this to carry on for two to three months is real,” Barker said. “This alone should be a sobering thought for anyone. We are about to be stretched like never before. And when we make decisions like this, when we take into account those will be adversely affected economically, when we think about those who are sick right now, when we think about our doctors and nurses out there and the risks they are taking on—this should make it really easy for us to just stay home and make good decisions.”

Local community leaders have taken a number of other steps to help curb the virus and to help alleviate some of the secondary stresses it has placed on the health care system and on families. Last week, local medical organizations worked with MSDH to convert a local clinic there in town to one focused solely on diagnosing and treating people with symptoms that could point to the coronavirus. Physicians in the Forrest County college town told members of the press on Monday that they hoped the clinic would divert potential coronavirus patients away from local emergency rooms and other clinics to help avoid spreading the virus throughout Hattiesburg’s health care system.

With blood drives cancelled across the state creating a blood-supply shortage, one local hospital, Forrest General, began holding blood drives on Saturday morning. Three more blood drives are planned, starting with one at Hattiesburg’s Lake Terrace Convention Center on Sunday from noon until 6 p.m.; at The Orthopedic Institute at 27 Southern Pointe Parkway from 7 a.m. until 12 p.m. on Monday; and also on Monday at Pine grove Behavioral Health & Addiction Services at 2255 Broadway Drive from 1 p.m. until 5 p.m.

Hattiesburg Public Schools, which are closed at least until April 17, are working on online learning services; principals, supervisors and essential personnel are set to begin receiving guidance on Monday on how to provide students with those services. The public schools will also begin offering “Grab and Go” meals for students, especially those who rely on free and reduced lunches at school.

Columbus Mayor: ‘I Understand Some People Might Lose Tithes and Offerings’

Northeast Mississippi’s Lowndes County learned it had a fourth COVID-19 patient on Saturday morning.  Shortly afterward, at Columbus Mayor Robert Smith’s urging, the Columbus City Council enacted several broad measures to prevent the virus’ spread, including a curfew that will bar all non-essential travel from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.

The council ordered all restaurants to cease dine-in services, only allowing drive-through or delivery options, and completely shuttered all bars, civic organizations, child-care facilities, entertainment and recreational venues, tattoo parlors, barbershops, salons, spas, convention centers, and parks at 5 p.m. on Saturday. The council also restricted all gatherings to no more than 10 people, including at houses of worship.

The city will enforce its new directives by hitting violators with up to a $1,000 fine or 90 days in jail.

When one resident pushed back, asking what would happen to churches that held full services the next morning, Smith offered a blunt assessment.

“You might have a few, probably a handful who will not appreciate it. … But hey, I understand some might be losing some tithes and offerings, but the people elected us to make the tough decisions and look out for the best interests of our citizens in the City of Columbus,” Smith said, saying the city planned to get the message out there to local religious leaders.

“If they want to pay their tithes online, let them pay it,” added Smith, who also encouraged local churches to broadcast their services over social-media livestreams.

The council and mayor’s order identified essential business-service agencies as including: hospitals, nursing homes, health clinics, drug stores, pharmacies, banks, grocery stores, convenience stores, gas stations, military installations, and security and emergency response operations.

UMMC to begin testing for COVID-19 - Mississippi Free Press
The University of Mississippi Medical Center is setting up a drive-thru testing station at the Mississippi State Fairgrounds that will begin collecting samples from some potential COVID-19 patients starting Tuesday. Photo courtesy UMMC.

UMMC to Begin Drive-Thru Testing Tuesday

In Jackson, the University of Mississippi Medical Center is working to make it easier for people to get screened and tested for COVID-19 while avoiding entering clinics and hospitals as much as possible. UMMC announced Friday that it plans to begin collecting samples for COVID-19 testing via a drive-thru location at the Mississippi State Fairgrounds starting Tuesday, March 24.

Anyone with potential COVID-19 symptoms, which includes respiratory issues like coughing, fever and shortness of breath, must first download a free app that the medical center developed with C Spire called C Spire Health UMMC Virtual COVID-19 Triage. Patients can use the app for screening from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. seven days a week.

Only those deemed at risk for COVID-19 after a screening on the app will be able to get tested at the fairgrounds, though. The app will give patients an identification number and an arrival time.

“There’s not a clear playbook for this, We are using best practices from around the country, and we will change and adapt as we go,” Dr. Jonathan Wilson, UMMC’s chief administrative officer, said. “We will continue as long as we have specimen collection materials and good weather.”

As of Friday afternoon, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control had reported 15,219 COVID-19 cases nationwide and 201 deaths. On Thursday, those numbers were 10,442 cases and 150 deaths.

Even today’s Mississippi numbers are likely significantly lower than the true count, though, because testing capacity remains constrained in the U.S. More information on UMMC’s COVID-19 prevention measures is available online at umc.edu/coronavirus and cdc.gov/coronavirus.

CORRECTIONS: The photo caption at the top of this story has been corrected to reflect that Jason Shelton is the mayor of Tupelo, not Columbus. This story has also been corrected to indicate that COVID-19 cases jumped 75% from Friday to Saturday, not 40%. This was an editing error.

The Mississippi Free Press has a clickable map showing diagnosed coronavirus cases across the state.

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin

Comments

Can you support the Mississippi Free Press?

 The Mississippi Free Press is nonprofit, solutions journalism for Mississippians and others who care about the state. 

Our newsroom runs on donations from people who care about Mississippi and this reporting. We thank you for reading and ask for your financial support.

Click the Support button below or at the very top of the site. Your donation will be made through the Community Foundation for Mississippi, our fiscal agent. Thank you!

Donate to our 2021 Capital Campaign today!