Newark City Council took no immediate action to restrict parties amid a new COVID-19 outbreak at the University of Delaware, but council members did agree Monday night to begin the process of drafting a new ordinance that would have a higher threshold to meet before being implemented.
“I think that we have a responsibility to put something in place that hopefully will be permanent and that the metrics make sense, as it applies to Delaware and more specifically, Newark,” Mayor Jerry Clifton said.
Last week, UD saw 376 new cases of COVID-19, its worst week since the pandemic began.
To put the numbers in context, the City of Newark saw 113 cases over the summer, between UD’s graduation on May 28 and when students began moving in Aug. 26. UD exceeded that number with just the cases reported in one day, Sept. 9.
The numbers decreased over the weekend as well as Monday, when 23 cases were reported.
Approximately 85 percent are breakthrough cases – meaning they are occurring among vaccinated students – however, UD has not said how many of those who tested positive were actually showing symptoms.
UD officials said that, much like last year, the virus is spreading at large off-campus parties.
City Manager Tom Coleman said he will draft an ordinance that would use the number of COVID-related hospitalizations in Delaware or New Castle County to determine when restrictions on private gatherings would go into effect. The exact number is yet to be determined, though he recommended setting the threshold at 300 or 400 hospitalizations statewide. The state currently stands at 266 hospitalizations.
Council could vote on the ordinance as early as Oct. 11.
It would replace the ordinance that was in place for most of the last academic year and limited parties to 20 people outdoors or 10 indoors.
The law was written so the restrictions would be retriggered if the city sees two consecutive weeks of 125 or more cases per 100,000 residents or a test positivity rate of 6 percent or higher.
Newark has already surpassed that threshold but can’t reinstate the current law due to legal concerns.
“The ordinance is no longer applicable as written because the Governor’s State of Emergency has ended,” Gravell said. “The main issue is in the section title: ‘Section 22-74.4 – Unlawful social gathering in or at a private residence during the COVID-19 State of Emergency.’”
Coleman said council could pass an identical ordinance but remove the reference to the state of emergency. However, he noted that the situation today is far different than when the original law was passed during the height of the pandemic. Despite the large number of cases reported last week, 91 percent of UD students are vaccinated and UD has a lower test positivity rate than the state as a whole.
He recommended changing the focus from number of cases to the number of hospitalizations, which would ensure gatherings are restricted only when the state’s hospitals are becoming overwhelmed.
“It guarantees that our ordinance is focused on preventing a situation where people don't have access to health care, like you're seeing in some southern states currently. I saw an article earlier today that a gentleman had a heart attack, and they had to check 43 hospitals before they got him in one and he ended up dying,” he said, referring to an incident in Alabama. “So obviously, that's something we're trying to avoid.”
A majority of council signaled support for a new ordinance, though the details still need to be worked out. However, there were deep divisions among council, with Clifton stepping in at one point to stop a debate between council members Travis McDermott and Dwendolyn Creecy.
McDermott said he won’t support any limits on gatherings unless the governor declares another state of emergency.
“We say that this is a pandemic of the unvaccinated. Yet we want to enact legislation to target a population that is 91 percent vaccinated and hope that we're going to get some type of result out of that,” McDermott said.
Creecy said her mother recently suffered a stroke and had to wait 13 hours for treatment at Christiana Hospital.
“I don't believe that protecting people is targeting people,” she said. “Some of us need to get out of our bubbles and realize that COVID doesn't care about our opinions. All it does is attack. COVID doesn't care about any of our affiliations. All COVID wants to do is kill.”
Councilman John Suchanec also called for new restrictions.
“They're just not going to police themselves. You know, it's like, OK, I went to one party on Cleveland Avenue, I might as well hit them all. Beer pong is going on constantly. I don’t know where they get all the ping pong balls, but it’s going on constantly at every other house,” Suchanec said. “You’ve got to put some boundaries on this thing.”
Caitlin Olsen, UD’s liaison to city council, said the university is ready to support and enforce any restrictions the city implements.
“We would support, promote, enforce any sort of ordinance that comes out of council chambers for private residences,” Olsen said. “We don't like to tell you what to do, out of respect, but we are happy to support you if you should come up with any restrictions.”
She added that UD will begin enforcing its vaccine mandate Tuesday, and any student who does not comply or have an authorized exemption won’t be able to get authorization to enter UD buildings.
UD junior Jack Levine, a representative of the student government, urged council to consider mandating masks or requiring proof of vaccination to enter restaurants and bars instead of restricting private gatherings.
“I would really like to see the council view a gathering limit as a last resort, if the situation gets really far out of hand,” Levine said. “Because at the end of the day, if we do have a gathering limit on private residences, students and full-time residents are likely to just attend bars and restaurants on Main Street, which do not have any regulation on them currently.”