City considers putting teeth in Back to Business guidelines

Published 2:09 pm Monday, May 4, 2020

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NATCHEZ — Natchez COVID-19 Task Force members said they are concerned some businesses are not following the city’s “Back to Business” order guidelines, including not requiring customers and employees to wear facemasks or facial coverings.

“We have got to make sure those retail businesses open in the city and county make it mandatory for employees and customers to wear masks or facial coverings,” said Darryl Grennell, Natchez mayor, during Monday’s teleconference meeting. “They are mandatory unless a medical condition keeps them from being able to wear one.”

The issue was raised after several task force members said they observed stores over the weekend that were allowing customers to shop without face coverings and some employees were not wearing facemasks.

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The news comes after the state’s COVID-19 death toll reached 303 on Sunday.

Merit Health Natchez CEO Lance Boyd said the hospital has six patients with confirmed cases of COVID-19 and one patient on a ventilator.

“Eight patients are under investigation, meaning we are waiting on tests results,” Boyd said.

Natchez Police Chief Walter Armstrong said he believes the city should start enforcing the Back to Business order, particularly with non-essential businesses, such as hair salons, seeing customers despite local and state orders saying not to.

“The only way you can address that and put a stop to it is you have got to have penalties and fines,” Armstrong said. “We are not fining individuals for violating the curfew although they are in many other cities. We are not fining businesses for being open when they are supposed to be closed. … We are stopping vehicles that are out after curfew only to tell them to go home.”

Armstrong said Vicksburg has issued more than 100 tickets and made multiple felony arrests.

“They have teeth in their curfew,” Armstrong said. “They can give you a ticket that can cost you a lot of money and so it is with those businesses that open. I don’t think we should be fining individuals for not wearing masks but if a business is that defiant that they would open their business up when they are supposed to be closed and put multiple individuals in danger whether you are a customer or not when those individuals leave that business and come back out in the community then we are all susceptible to catching that virus.”

Other guidelines included in the city’s Back to Business order require businesses to enforce requiring employees and customers to wear masks or coverings over mouth and nose, providing in-store hand-sanitizing stations at the store entry and check-out counter, requiring employees to sanitize hands between each customer interaction and to wash hands with soap and water multiple times a day, sanitizing surfaces frequently and training employees on the CDC’s health and safety standards for preventing spread of COVID-19.

Natchez City Attorney Bob Latham said the city’s order entitles people to a warning.

“If they continue to still violate the … order you can go back and issue them a fine (up to $500),” Latham said. “It is just a misdemeanor fine. You can give them a ticket for violating the … order just like you could if they are jaywalking or any other misdemeanor. If you start issuing tickets they’ll start abiding by the law.”

Armstrong said he would review the order and consider starting to issue fines to businesses that are operating outside of the guidelines.

Grennell asked Armstrong to deliver notices to businesses reminding them that the Back to Business order requires businesses to require customers and employees to wear facemasks.

Also, the Task Force is starting a public service campaign to educate people through newspaper and social media advertising on the guidelines and ways to stop the spread of COVID-19.