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Newark delays vote on reinstating restrictions on private gatherings

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Newark Municipal Building

The Newark Municipal Building on South Main Street is shown in this file photo.

Update – 7:07 p.m. July 13

Citing concerns from the business community, city council decided not to discuss an emergency ordinance on coronavirus restrictions Monday night.

Council voted 5-2 not to add the item to the agenda, with only council members Jen Wallace and Chris Hamilton in favor of discussing it.

“Our first concern is health and safety, and I thought the ordinance was reasonable and is something that should be enacted sooner rather than later," Wallace said.

Mayor Jerry Clifton said he plans to meet with the business community to hear its concerns before deciding how to move forward. Business owners had expressed concern about the timing of the ordinance, which was announced on short notice and would have taken effect immediately if passed.

“There's conversation that needs to occur," Clifton said.

Original article:

Newark City Council will vote Monday night on an emergency ordinance that would reinstate limits on private gatherings and ban bar service at restaurants and bars in an attempt to limit the spread of the coronavirus.

Under the proposed law, social gatherings at private residences would be limited to no more than 10 attendees. Furthermore, police would be empowered to disburse groups of 10 or more people congregating along streets and sidewalks. Violators can be fined a minimum of $200 for a first offense and $400 for subsequent offenses.

Bars and restaurants would be prohibited from serving customers at the bar. Service at tables would continue to be allowed, as long as businesses follow state guidelines.

“Governor Carney’s reopening plan is contingent upon key COVID-19 indicators trending downward. However, over the past several weeks, several key COVID-19 indicators have been trending upward,” City Solicitor Paul Bilodeau wrote in a memo to city council. “Accordingly, the purpose of this Emergency Ordinance is to limit the transmission of the COVID-19 virus within Newark by imposing restrictions upon social gatherings within Newark.”

Consideration of the restrictions comes as city leaders grow increasingly worried about the impact of University of Delaware students returning to Newark.

“I know a lot of folks that are fearing that the college folks are going to come back and they're going to be partying like crazy,” Councilman Chris Hamilton said last week. “We've done a really good job in this area, keeping the numbers down for COVID-19. But we do have about half our population potentially coming back, maybe a little bit less with some online classes being offered, but we're going to have a significant increase in our population in three weeks, and we need to be prepared for it.”

UD classes start Sept. 1, but students will begin moving into the dorms earlier than usual in order to space out move-in. Off-campus leases typically begin June 1, so many upperclassmen are already in Newark.

In mid-March, after St. Patrick’s Day partying sparked concern, Newark was among the first in the state to restrict gatherings and restaurant service. Newark Police used the law at least four times, issuing citations for parties held on Choate Street, Benny Street, East Park Place and Main Street. In some of those incidents, as many as 12 party attendees were cited.

Newark’s restrictions were later repealed as the city chose to follow state guidelines, which were gradually loosened in June. However, city leaders have credited their early action with preventing a more serious outbreak here.

Newark saw Delaware’s first coronavirus cases, many of which were traced back to a UD professor who had attended a party in New Jersey. Since then, however, the city has fared far better than some other areas of the state.

According to data from the state, the city of Newark has seen a total of 155 confirmed cases and 11 deaths. Statewide, there have been 12,804 cases and 517 deaths.

After statewide numbers ticked up recently, which officials blamed on irresponsible behavior at the Delaware beaches, Gov. John Carney banned bar service at the beach area but not elsewhere in the state.

If approved, Newark’s ordinance would once again make the city’s rules more restrictive than the state’s.

Notably, though, the proposal does not go as far as the law the city implemented in March. The earlier law restricted restaurants to take-out and delivery, while the proposed law allows indoor and outdoor table service to continue.

The proposed law also does not restrict public gatherings, as the 10-person limit is only for private residences – a measure obviously aimed at curtailing the large house parties common when UD students return. Under state rules, public gatherings of up to 250 people are allowed as long as they follow social distancing guidelines.

The proposal to be voted on Monday was added to the agenda Wednesday as an emergency ordinance, a rarely used provision that allows the city to pass emergency laws without the usual required public notice. It must be approved by a supermajority of five of the seven council members.

Officials said the issue is “time sensitive,” and noted that, due to the upcoming city election, Monday’s meeting is the last one until mid August.

Interestingly, also on Monday’s agenda is a proposal for the city to host more outdoor dining events on Main Street like the one on June 25. The city shut down Main Street, and hundreds of people came downtown to eat at tables restaurants had set up in the street.

While social distancing restrictions were in place at the event, council could find itself in an awkward position as it is asked to vote on restricting private gatherings while also approving large public gatherings.

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