Newark is moving closer toward reinstating restrictions on private gatherings in an effort to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. However, facing a legal threat, Mayor Jerry Clifton conceded defeat on his initiative to limit bar seating in local restaurants.
“I probably wasted my time trying to get something that was going to protect Newark. If something happens, once that horse is out of the barn, there’s no putting it back,” Clifton said. “I’m disappointed but I respect the rule of law and council’s decisions on this.”
Discussion of the coronavirus-related restrictions has been ongoing for more than a month, as city officials and residents grow fearful of a potential virus spike when University of Delaware students return.
UD has moved almost all of its classes online and limited the number of students who are allowed to live in the dorms. However, many off-campus students are expected to return to Newark this fall, and many are already here.
Officials fear that returning students will congregate at house parties and bars, potentially spreading COVID-19 amongst themselves. Those students might then visit grocery stores, restaurants, etc., risking spreading the virus to Newark residents.
“We have 10,000 students, faculty, staff, coming into our city. And our numbers may be fine right now, but we know these people are coming,” Councilman Chris Hamilton said, adding that Newark’s population will nearly double in the coming weeks. “We might not be a hotspot right now, but there are people coming from hotspots.”
Council could have voted to implement the restrictions Monday night but opted not to add the emergency ordinances to the agenda and instead discussed the ideas informally.
Most council members expressed support for restrictions on private gatherings, and a vote is expected at a future meeting.
“Our takeaway was that we needed to get some more data on what is reasonable and present some options for council to review,” city spokeswoman Jayme Gravell said.
The ordinance would reinstate the restrictions Newark first put in place in March, just days after a UD professor became Delaware’s first confirmed COVID-19 case. That law limited gatherings to 10 people or fewer, and police used it to break up several student house parties.
Newark’s restrictions were later repealed as the city chose to follow state guidelines, which were gradually loosened in June.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.
On Monday, several council members said that if the law is reinstated, they would like to see the limit raised higher than 10.
“I’ve had a massive amount of feedback from residents,” Councilman Jason Lawhorn said. “We have residents with six kids and you get to a point where their neighbors can’t come over.”
He suggested limiting gatherings to a certain number of family units, rather than people.
“If my two brothers want to come over and our families have dinner together, I think that’s reasonable,” he said. “I think that’s been happening for months and people have figured out how to manage it.”
Caitlin Olsen, UD’s liaison to the city, said the university would support a gathering restriction.
“We want to make sure that we can have some clear and concise rules to tell the students. More specifically, if you decide that it’s 10 people, I think that would be great because it continues the communication that we had in the spring,” Olsen said. “I certainly would support any movement by council, and we will absolutely enforce what you come up with.”
While council was largely in agreement on moving forward with a gathering restriction, the proposal to limit bar seating was far less popular. Only Clifton and Hamilton voiced support for it.
Current state guidelines dictate that seating at the bar must allow for proper social distancing between those not of the same household, but Clifton said that is being abused.
“What I am seeing is people coming in and saying, ‘Oh, it’s OK that I sit next to this person because I know this person.’ Well, you may only know him from the bar,” he said.
He added that bars are, by their very nature, social places and even patrons with the best of intentions may forget about social distancing once the liquor begins to flow.
“It’s one or two drinks, then it’s off the table,” he said.
Clifton spent the last month meeting with restaurants, hoping to get them to agree to restrictions, to no avail.
Last week, a group of more than two-dozen restaurants hired a lawyer and threatened to sue the city.
Attorney Thomas Neuberger, who won’t name the restaurants he is representing, sent a cease-and-desist letter to Clifton and members of council. He said that if Newark moved forward with the “arbitrary, irrational and tyrannical” proposal, he would file suit in federal court alleging a violation of the restaurants’ 14th-Amendment right to due process and seeking lost business revenue and punitive damages.
The restaurants also drafted a document making promises that they would follow health guidelines.
“This is our livelihood. This is the health of our staff, our customers, our community,” said Marc Ashby, owner of The Deer Park Tavern. “We take that all very seriously.”
Clifton pointed to places like Florida and the Delaware beaches, which saw their coronavirus numbers spike due to outbreaks at bars.
“Being reactive is not a good position to fight a battle,” he said. “When fighting a battle, you should be proactive.”
Other council members countered that Newark’s bars seem to be doing the right thing. Lawhorn argued that other places, like Wawa, are probably a bigger danger, noting that one day he counted 45 people in the convenience store, with little social distancing.
“It’s orders of magnitude more dangerous than having some people sit at a bar,” Lawhorn said.
With it apparent the proposal wouldn’t move forward, Hamilton expressed concern about the future health of Newarkers and took issue with colleagues who declined to support the measure.
“If you see a tidal wave coming or if you know there’s been an earthquake, most people sound an alarm before the wave gets there,” he said. “Here we are saying, our numbers are good, let’s just wait until that wave comes ashore before we sound the alarm.”