With Newark’s coronavirus cases decreasing and University of Delaware students preparing to leave town in another month, city officials are considering loosening the strict limits on social gatherings.
No firm details have been announced, but several council members expressed support Monday for eliminating Newark’s restrictions and relying on state guidelines, which are more permissive.
Council is expected to debate and vote on the issue at a future meeting. The relaxed restrictions likely would not take effect until at least June 1, after students have left for the summer.
“With the students leaving here in a month, I believe that the permanent residents of the city of Newark should not be subjected to anything other than what the rest of the state is under,” Councilman Travis McDermott said. “I believe that our original intent when we enacted this ordinance was to address largely the gatherings that students would be having, and I think that it worked. But with them leaving, I don’t see a need to continue at this point in time, and then re-evaluate when the when the students come back in the fall.”
Under current city law, gatherings are limited to 10 people indoors and 20 people outdoors.
The state also limits private indoor gatherings to 10 people but allows indoor gatherings in businesses or public places – such as a wedding or birthday party – to have up to 25 people.
The state allows outdoor gatherings of up to 150 people in open areas, including weddings, funerals, concerts, parades and fairs. Outdoor venues with more than 100,000 square feet can have up to 50 percent of their stated fire capacity, and smaller venues can have up to 75 percent of their capacity, as long as it is 150 or less.
The city’s gathering ordinance stipulates that the limits won’t be lifted until the city has seen three consecutive weeks of fewer than five new cases per 100,000 people and less than 1 percent of tests are positive.
City Manager Tom Coleman said it will take a long time to reach that threshold. Currently, the city is seeing 116 cases per 100,000 people – down from a peak of 750 over the winter. The lowest level since the pandemic began was 28 last summer.
(Newark has a population of approximately 34,000, so the rate per 100,000 people is roughly triple the actual number of cases reported over the span of a week.)
Coleman said he believes the existing threshold is no longer necessary.
“With vaccinations so prevalent, having that level set as high as it is doesn’t seem justified by the science,” he said.
Councilman James Horning Jr. concurred.
“We owe a certain duty to the public when we have ordinances that restrict private gatherings and those sort of occasions,” Horning said. “We want to make sure they’re up-to-date with the current science and data. The least restrictive means possible, I think, is what we should use to get to the end result of a safe environment.”
City Solicitor Paul Bilodeau noted that if the city experiences an unexpected coronavirus spike, council can use its emergency powers to quickly reinstate the stricter gathering limits.
Newark has seen a significant decrease in COVID-19 cases since a spike in late February that coincided with the start of UD’s spring semester.
As of this week, the city is averaging 6 new cases per day – down from the peak of 45 per day on March 3. That’s the lowest daily average since early November.
After threatening to lock down the campus in late February if the numbers didn’t improve, UD has seen a consistent improvement as well. Last week, only 44 students tested positive for COVID-19, the lowest number since the semester began.
Earlier this month, UD was able to resume in-person dining at dining halls and student centers. The earlier spike was traced, in part, to the dining halls, and for much of the semester, the dining halls offered takeout service only.
With all Delawareans 16 and older now eligible for the vaccine, UD is encouraging students to get the shot and hosted an on-campus vaccination clinic at the STAR Tower last week.
According to state officials, more than 700,000 vaccine doses have been administered in Delaware, including 19,000 to Newark residents.
Statewide, more than half of those eligible have received their first dose, and more than a third are fully vaccinated.