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‘Not Going to Get in Trouble’: Businesses Seeking Normalcy With State Mask Rules Lifted

Chef Eric Tate sits wearing a Black mask and a red T-shirt reading Mayo & Tomato.
Caption: McEwen’s Chef Eric Tait is worried that the drop in population of student workers might mean restaurants in downtown Oxford will go under-staffed as the state begins to reopen. Photo by Grace Marion

OXFORD, Miss.—Following Gov. Tate Reeves’ decision to lift COVID-19 restrictions as of today, many Mississippi business owners are preparing for what they hope will be a return to normalcy. 

“We’re still going to do the things that we need to do to stay clean and disinfected and stuff like that,” Jamie Houston, owner of Oxford Fitness Kickboxing and Jiu Jitsu, said. ”Even if it’s the overkill, those little safety measures that you’re taking still will keep people, you know, it’ll still help in the sense that it’ll help people feel safe when they come into the facility.”

Houston expects his business to increase as COVID-19 restrictions are lifted. 

“There’ll be, I think, maybe an increase in business because people are going to want to get out,” Houston said. “They’re tired of being, you know, forced to stay in and that kind of thing and just the fact that there’s no restrictions, and they’re not going to get in trouble for it and stuff like that.” 

Houston, who also owns Starkville Fitness Kickboxing and Hi-level Jiu Jitsu, said that he lost about 70% of his gym members between March and September. 

“Our business suffered dramatically with the loss of business, you know, primarily because this entire town feeds off the college students,” Houston said. “Half the population that we’re accustomed to was made to leave after spring break last year.”

Business began to pick up for Houston as students began to return at the start of the fall semester. 

“We’re not where we once were,” Houston said. “But we’re definitely climbing back up to where we want to be again, and back where we used to be.” 

Not Enough Staff to Meet Demand?

Meanwhile, McEwen’s Chef Eric Tait isn’t worried about business coming back—he’s worried about meeting the demand. 

Although the University of Mississippi began the fall semester a few months into the COVID-19 pandemic, many students chose to take classes online from home rather than return to Oxford. 

“We really didn’t lose any restaurants on the Square,” Tait said. “But we did lose a lot of students.” 

Tait’s staff will have to serve 300 people on a busy day, almost tripling the about 120 people per day that they see now. 

“Luckily, this is not a big weekend; there’s no big sports going on big events,” Tait said. “If it was, we would be out of luck. I’ve got a bunch of guys that work really hard, including myself. But you know, we’re not increasing our staff by 50%. But we’re increasing, you know, demand.”

Oxford Mayor Supports Dropping Restrictions

Last week Mayor Robyn Tannehill said that the City of Oxford was in favor of Reeves dropping COVID-19 restrictions, namely because she believes it will bring students—who are tenants and customers—back to Oxford’s economy. 

Oxford Mayor Robin Tannehill - Mississippi Free Press
Oxford Mayor Robyn Tannehill supports Gov. Tate Reeves’ lifting of the state’s masking and COVID-19 safety protocols in order to help local businesses recover. Photo courtesy City of Oxford.

“We are really pushing him to loosen these restrictions,” Tannehill said in a discussion with a University of Mississippi journalism class on Feb. 24. “I think Oxford and Ole Miss communities have done a really good job of bringing our numbers way down, and we’re asking (Reeves) to let bars stay open until 1 (a.m.), to quit limiting the capacities in these outdoor facilities and that kind of thing…. That will bring more students back.” 

The same day the governor lifted the mandate, Mississippi doctors took to Twitter to warn Mississippians to continue to be cautious and keep wearing masks. Dr. LouAnn Woodward, vice chancellor of the University of Mississippi Medical Center and dean of its school of medicine, tweeted Tuesday evening after Reeves’ announcement: “Mississippi—see this. In healthcare settings—wear a mask. In other high risk settings—wear a mask. We have gained ground—let’s be smart and not lose it!  Also #taketheshot #sciencematters #AHealthierMississippi.”

Woodward, who often called for stronger safety precautions than Reeves over the last year, also retweeted Dr. Anita Henderson. Henderson is a pediatrician in Hattiesburg, where Mayor Toby Barker signed a new order today to keep his city’s mask mandate in place. Mayor Chokwe A. Lumumba signed a similar order in the capital city, but city officials have elected not to do so in Oxford.

Forrest General Hospital Family Medicine Residency Program Assistant Director Dr. Rambod Ruhbakhsh, left, appeared with Hattiesburg Mayor Toby Baker on March 17, 2020, to discuss the pandemic. Barker was an early adapter to safety protocols and, this week, extended Hattiesburg’s mask mandate. Photo courtesy City of Hattiesburg

Thank you Mayor Barker! Please Mississippi keep wearing and avoiding unnecessary groups gatherings. We are so close to having vaccines available for everyone. Let’s not see another wave and undo all the good progress we have made,” Dr. Henderson tweeted.

As of today, the Mississippi State Department Health lists a total of 6,837 cases of COVID-19 in Lafayette County (13 percent of its residents), 113 total deaths, and 187 cases and 55 deaths in long-term care facilities. Today, MSDH reported 380 new cases of the novel coronavirus, 19 deaths and 61 long-term care facility outbreaks as the statewide safety regulations end.

Oxford’s Board of Aldermen voted Tuesday to keep curbside pickup programs and outdoor dining open indefinitely through the end of March, even as restaurants are allowed to fully re-open in Oxford.

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