In an effort to reduce the spread of COVID-19, the Mitchell City Council unanimously approved the first reading of an ordinance on Tuesday to authorize a city-wide shut down if the virus reaches the level of community spread.
According to Mitchell Mayor Bob Everson, Tuesday’s first reading would begin a five-day time period for the council to hold a second reading in the future that would effectively shutdown the city of Mitchell, should the virus become community spread followed by the council's approval of the second reading.
For the virus to reach the level of community spread in the city of Mitchell, an individual who gets infected with the virus would have had to contract it through an unknown source without traveling.
“Currently, Mitchell’s positive cases are travel related, but we are trying to be ready if and when we get community spread,” Everson said Tuesday during the emergency council meeting. “We have to have five days before the second reading ordinance can be adopted. We are planning to meet as the council on Monday (March 30).”
The COVID-19 novel coronavirus first spread into Mitchell on March 13, after a Mitchell resident tested positive. According to Everson, the Mitchell woman who contracted the virus was travel related. On Sunday, the South Department of Health announced the second positive case in the Mitchell community, which was also travel related. As of Tuesday, Mitchell had two positive cases.
The special meeting comes after the city of Huron and Beadle County officials decided to shutdown the Huron community due to an additional six new positive cases of COVID-19 being detected over the weekend. Prior to Huron’s six new cases that were announced Sunday, the virus wasn’t deemed as a community spread, which meant the previous positive cases that were detected in Huron were travel related. The Huron area and Beadle County has the highest total of positive cases of the virus at 12, which is nearly half of the total 28 cases in the state of South Dakota.
Mitchell’s city-wide shutdown would include the closures of businesses in which people congregate such as restaurants, bars, coffeehouses, movie theaters and recreational facilities, to name a few. However, Everson said grocery stores, pharmacies, and some retailers, along with other essential establishments, would be permitted to remain open throughout the duration of the shutdown.
According to City Attorney Justin Johnson, the ordinance allows restaurants and fast food establishments to provide takeout and delivery services in the midst of the shutdown, which he said a number of local restaurants have already been transitioning to as of recent.
“It’s more focused on restaurants, bars and places like that which have a lot of community members come through there. The recommendations are to tackle those types of locations to help slow the spread of the virus,” Johnson said.
While restaurants and fast food establishments have the ability to adapt as much as possible amid the virus threat, Johnson acknowledged some particular businesses will have difficulty adapting to the shutdown.
“Some other types of businesses may not have those options or may be more complicated for them to make modifications such as recreation facilities,” Johnson said. “Those are the type of businesses that people are in and out a lot, and the guidance is to limit or avoid having people come and go to those types of places.”
Considering the virus outbreak is rapidly evolving on a local, state and national level, Johnson said the ordinance acknowledges there could be a need to close other areas in the community down the road if the virus spreads.
“The economic hits that it would have would be ugly, so we hope the Mitchell community can continue to practice hygiene and social distancing to try and eliminate community spread," Everson said.
Although Everson is hopeful the virus won't prompt a city shutdown, he said the employees who work in Mitchell and commute from Huron played a role in taking the proactive measure that would authorize the council to vote on shutting the city down if the virus becomes a community spread.
With the volume of employees who work in Mitchell and commute from Huron, Everson has requested and recommended all larger businesses to screen their workers. However, he noted that employers aren't mandated to screen their employees, rather it's a recommendation to reduce the spread of the virus.
As far as enforcement goes for the city shutdown, Everson said the council would have the authority to determine how the city enforces all of those who don’t comply with the shutdown. For residents who violate the shutdowns, the existing language of the ordinance would call for a maximum penalty that includes a $500 fine with a maximum of 30 days in jail, Johnson said.
“We are allowed to put our own penalties on the ordinance, and Huron has a $500 fine if you violate their shutdown ordinance,” Everson said. “Huron is in a much more serious place than we are.”
In Everson’s best case scenario, the virus doesn’t reach community spread and the council can then sit on the second reading and vote to amend or repeal the ordinance to not shut the city down. In addition, the Mayor Everson can suspend the ordinance if he determines the virus crisis has passed without reaching community level spread, essentially giving the council authority to kill the ordinance.
“After the five days are up following the first reading, and we see we are in community spread, we can go ahead and do the second reading to adopt the ordinance,” Everson said, noting the shutdown would take effect after the second reading is adopted and approved.
The pandemic has led Gov. Kristi Noem to recommend school closures and declare a state emergency on March 13 when the virus spread into South Dakota. As of now, Beadle County and the Huron area have seen the largest number of positive cases. Noem has also recommended that mayors of South Dakota cities that see community spread to enforce a city shutdown.
Everson said the second reading is slated to take place March 30, in which the council will determine whether the virus has reached the level of community spread that could prompt a council vote on the second reading to officially shut down the city.
Council member Susan Tjarks raised the question of whether the city could act sooner on shutting down the city prior to the five-day time lapse in the chance community spread occurs before the second reading.
In response, Johnson said the council and mayor would have to wait until after the five days are up to vote on the second reading of the ordinance, which would be the fastest method for the city to implement a shutdown.
Council member Steve Rice suggested the ordinance include more specific language that explains the city would be following the Center of Disease Control (CDC) guidelines to reduce or flatten the potential spike of the virus through practicing social distancing, which suggests people to stay at least 6 feet apart for a prolonged period of time. Rice emphasized a key goal to combat the virus centers around reducing the risk of overwhelming the healthcare facilities, which has been the case in several major cities across the country.
“Social distancing, from what I can find, will not reduce the number of infected people, but it will reduce the spike of the curve,” Rice said. “We’re trying to prevent the overrunning of the capacity at the hospitals. The total number of people who will be infected is a fixed number.”
Rice questioned how quickly the city shutdown could be rescinded or lifted. In response, Johnson said the mayor and council could rescind the ordinance at any time to lift the shutdown if it would go into effect.
From the perspective of a local business owner, Jason Bates, owner of Big Dummy’s Bar, stressed the magnitude of the economic impact that a city shutdown would have for local businesses, industry and employees.
“How long is long enough to where we don’t have any new cases pop up to say enough is enough?” Bates said. “How much damage are we going to do to our local economy before we say, ‘We only have had two cases, and it’s time to open back up.’ We could have thousand of homeless people, and the suicide rate could soar with shutting businesses down.”