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Natchez COVID-19 Task Force recommends city adopt Governor’s guidelines

NATCHEZ — Members of the Natchez COVID-19 Task Force agreed during Monday’s meeting to recommend the Natchez Mayor and Board of Aldermen adopt the state’s guidelines for reopening businesses.

The decision comes after much of the state, including businesses in Adams County outside of the Natchez city limits, were able to resume business late last week, under Gov. Tate Reeves’ latest amendment to his “Safer at Home” order that is set to expire at 5 p.m. May 25.

Currently, the city of Natchez’s “Back to Business” order, which is more strict than Reeves’ order, does not allow restaurants to serve dine-in customers, nor does it allow gyms, salons and barber shops to operate, as does Reeves’ order.

Over the weekend, Natchez Mayor Darryl Grennell announced that he had agreed to allow waivers for outdoor dining for a number of Natchez restaurants.

Then, Sunday evening Ward 3 Alderwoman Sarah Carter Smith, who also is a member of the city’s COVID-19 Task Force, posted on social media that she had decided to recommend to the board of aldermen that the city adopt Reeves’ more lenient guidelines and allow restaurants in the city to resume dine-in service.

“I am of the opinion that the City of Natchez should adopt the Governor’s Executive Order with the provision that we follow changes/amendments as they are made by the state,” Smith wrote in her social media post. “I believe this will end confusion and help in the rebuilding of our local economy. At this point in the pandemic, personal responsibility plays a tremendous part. If you are vulnerable, elderly, or immune system compromised, please decide very carefully how you proceed. If you are a business that does not want to open yet, then that is your decision to make.”

William Thames, chairman of the city’s COVID-19 Task Force, said he too would recommend following Reeves’ orders after having monitored COVID-19 numbers in Georgia, which reopened businesses approximately two weeks ago.

“At this moment in time, the numbers in Georgia are continuing downward,” Thames said. “…If you look at our city, we are sitting in Adams County, we are surrounded by the rest of the county that has officially voted to adopt the state guidelines for the reopening of various businesses, restaurants, salons, gyms, etc., and we are surrounded by that population and part of our own city population ventures in and out of Adams County. You can go an inch outside of the city limits now and go to Roux 61 and have dinner and come back home in downtown Natchez if you choose to do that.”

During Monday’s task force teleconference meeting Thames said he weighed all of those issues and then told the task force he is recommending the task force ask aldermen to adopt Reeves’ order, “with the caveat of strict adherence to every element of the state guidelines the reopening of the various types of businesses that the state has reopened.”

Thames said he also asks that the city make a “reinforced effort for education of our fellow citizens to exercise every precaution and make every decision they make as they go into any sort of business with the utmost caution for their own health and for the health of those around them. And that the city adopt a strong position of enforcement with citations for any known or observed violation of a lack of adherence to any of the guidelines.”

Grennell said he agrees with Thames.

“I’m all about safety,” Grennell said. “I am all about protecting the citizens, and I’m all about saving lives. … Eventually we are just going to have to move forward in respect to following up with the state guidelines in respect to opening businesses and so forth. We are just going to have to continue to educate people to try to be as safe as possible to sanitize as much as possible to stress the use of wearing facemasks also to distance themselves, because as someone said earlier, the virus is not on vacation. It is not on hiatus.”

Dr. Blane Mire said he is seeing a reduction in cases at his clinics in Natchez.

“From a medical standpoint we are, I’m happy to say … we are seeing a reduction of cases as outpatient and I can say that just based on our clinics,” Mire said. “Out of the last 50 folks that we have tested as outpatient in the last week and a half we’ve only had a few of those positive and just over the weekend, we tested seven or eight people on Friday. We tested two people over the weekend so people are not coming in as sick.”

Mire said even still, the numbers have not been going down for two weeks.

“A two week decline is part of a model that is for previous global pandemics … but when you follow these with a flu, local epidemics they have to see the two-week decline,” Mire said, “We have not seen that big of a decline yet so it has to take place for us to really start to feel that we are getting through that phase.”

Mire said he believes Adams County’s lower numbers represent a stabilization in the spread of COVID-19.

“It is time to go ahead and let these smaller businesses have an opportunity to do the right thing,” Mire said in endorsing advising the city to adopt the statewide orders.

Mire said, however, he is concerned that some of the larger essential businesses that have remained open are not following proper procedures and he would like to see them improve to set a good example for others.

“Our main big essential high-volume businesses are the real culprits here in terms of not following the guidelines and these are the places you have a better chance and a higher risk of having contact and cross contamination and bringing it home and not in the small mom and pops,” Mire said. “I have had the opportunity to talk to several offices and in contact with my patients in the last month and they all want to do the right thing. They need training. They need facilitators. I think Natchez Inc. and whoever else could be partners in that facilitation process.”

Natchez Inc. has set up a Shop Smart certification process for local businesses to follow in reopening and to gain certification to show customers and employees that their businesses are following proper protocols to lessen the change of spreading COVID-19.

“Lets give them the opportunity to have the right training, the right information to say, ‘OK I have this guideline,’” Mire said. “‘This is what I need. Please help me.’”

Mire said proper training is important because the virus is spread when people do not follow proper protocol.

“From a medical standpoint this virus does not just move around by itself,” Mire said. “We move it and we are seeing a lot more movement and in order to stop the virus from moving and spreading, we have to maintain these elements of protection. Masks are what people are sort of really lapsing on. … It protects others. It basically protects others from you and it protects yourself by not touching your face. It is really just respect in a store.”

Mire said many stores are having employees wear masks but are not requiring customers to wear masks.

“This is where these businesses are having these issues,” Mire said. “‘No shirt, no shoes’ never has been a problem. You put your shirt on to go to a business. Put a mask on. A shirt never hurt anybody. I don’t think anybody spread infections by not having their shirt on. It may not be very tactful to do it. Shoes as well. This is where we come from. This actually can help save lives even if you feel you are already healthy and don’t have to worry about it. These are the challenges. We need role models.”

Grennell said aldermen might need to consider whether to set requirements before some businesses are allowed to open.

Mire said inspections of businesses before allowing those businesses to open could be helpful.

“Not so much as a policing but to make sure you have protocols in place,” Mire said. “Give you a Shop Smart location badge so then you feel confident to open and brag about the fact that you are doing everything right. That is a process. If we pass this on Tuesday and open the flood gates for everything to open on Wednesday, it opens a whole lot more problems than we need and I would hope small businesses will understand if we pass this that within a few days if you have your guidelines set up and you have all the product and all the protocols in place then that can be approved fairly quickly for you to open and that’s what we need.”

The Natchez Mayor and Board of Aldermen will meet via teleconference at 11 a.m. Tuesday to consider the recommendation and to conduct other business.