The delicate balance between business and health was at the forefront of many discussions at the Board of County Commissioners’ virtual August meeting, and in the end, slight tweaks were made to existing ordinances to maintain that equilibrium. The mask ordinance was clarified, and the restaurant curfew was extended but granted an additional hour of opening.
Bob Eadie, health officer of Monroe County, provided the BOCC with an update on the COVID-19 situation in the county at the start of the meeting.
“Numbers are looking good for us,” said Eadie. “Our positivity rate over the last two weeks is 8.4%, and we’ve just done over 3,400 tests….We’re looking good here for the county as a whole.”
Eadie said the low infection rate, despite an average of 230 tests a day being conducted in the same period, was encouraging and showed that people were following directives and safety protocols in place, “because the numbers would not reflect that without people doing what they’re doing.”
The health officer reminded the public of the five most important things to keep doing:
- Wear a mask
- Wash your hands
- Socially distance
- Be smart in crowds. If you’re uncomfortable, just leave.
- Get the flu shot this year.
“We’ve tested a hell of a lot of people, and we’re doing something right in Monroe County,” Eadie said, “What we’re doing isn’t broken, so let’s not fix it. And if you have suggestions, please don’t throw everything we’ve done away and just open up.”
With that in mind, the commissioners held public hearings to revisit a few coronavirus-related ordinances.
County Attorney Bob Shillinger renewed discussions on the county’s mask ordinance, proposing clarifying language to aid enforcement efforts.
“If you’re out in public, away from your home, you need a mask. If you’re in a public area of a business, wear a mask,” Shillinger said. In contrast, “if you’re going for a walk down a lonely country road, you don’t need a mask. But, if you’re within 6 feet of others, wear one.”
Shillinger also clarified language about food and beverage consumption in restaurants. Patrons may remove their mask while consuming food or beverages while seated, but not standing.
“This way, they can’t walk around the bar area with a drink in hand without a mask,” Shillinger said.
Mayor Heather Carruthers agreed, saying, “If you’re sitting, your spray is confined to the table. If you’re standing, your spray can go everywhere. This makes sense.”
The BOCC hoped the clarification would make the ordinance “crystal clear” for code officers who are tasked with its enforcement. The modification passed unanimously.
The second ordinance reviewed dealt with nightly restaurant closures and alcohol sales ban countywide.
The emergency ordinance in place stemmed from a fear that mini-season might result in mass spreading of coronavirus. That ordinance, which was set to sunset at 11 p.m. on the BOCC meeting day, mandated that restaurants close nightly from 11 p.m to 5 a.m. and alcohol package sales be prohibited from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m.
At the meeting, the commissioners voted in a 3-to-2 split to modify and extend the ordinance through Labor Day, Sept. 7, 2020 with a new nightly restaurant closure time of midnight. The closure means patrons of restaurants need to be paid and out of the restaurant by midnight. Alcohol package sales will now be prohibited from midnight to 7 a.m.
Carruthers and Commissioner Sylvia Murphy strongly supported extending the ordinance as is through Labor Day.
Carruthers noted that the health department had warned that restaurants and bars had become clusters of infection when staff relaxed after closing, the exact situation the ordinance was trying to prevent.
“Restaurants were becoming de facto bars. People get friendlier than when they’re sober,” she said. “Our health officials said we had a spike cuz we took our foot off the gas too soon….I think it’s premature to do this.”
The mayor also shared her discussions with the mayors of municipalities, who all preferred to keep the ordinance in place.
Commissioners Craig Cates and Michelle Coldiron voted against, instead advocating for a sunset of the ordinance. Both made a case for normal hours of operation for restaurants, citing the need for businesses to make back critical lost income.
“We need to make sure we balance the needs of our business community with our health,” Coldiron said. “If restaurants can just go to normal hours, it allows them to get an extra boost of money to help them pay bills right now.”
Commissioner David Rice proposed the motion that eventually passed, extending the ordinance with a modification allowing for restaurants to remain open an extra hour.
He said, “This is the time of year when tourism is pretty slim anyhow. I have been hearing from the staff of restaurants pleading for the extra hour at night to help them get through. And, in light of our low infection rate, I could have flex in that area.”
Rice added, “I think we’re trying to reach a balance and I think we’ve done a pretty good job at it.”
Bars are still currently closed per the Department of Business and Professional Regulation Emergency Order but are included in the local ordinance should things change at the state level.
The closures and alcohol sales will be in effect throughout the county and municipalities unless a municipality enacts different rules.
Any person found in violation may be punished by up to 60 days in the county jail and/or a fine of up to $500. Violators also are subject to administrative fines of up to $1,000 for a first offense and $5,000 for a repeat offense. Each day a violation of this ordinance occurs is considered a separate offense.