Fayetteville council gives mayor authority to regulate gatherings

Photo: Todd Gill, Fayetteville Flyer

Fayetteville Mayor Lioneld Jordan on Monday was given extraordinary power to limit or prohibit public gatherings in response to the ongoing coronavirus outbreak.

The City Council voted 8-0 to approve the measure, which went into effect immediately, but will expire on April 29 unless the council meets again to grant an extension.

The decision came during a special meeting of the council, which also included approval of two other pandemic-related items, including appropriating emergency funds if needed, and a show of support for the release of pre-trial non-violent detainees from the Washington County Detention Center to reduce the risk or impact of an outbreak in the jail.

Council Member Matthew Petty said limiting public gatherings is a painful decision, but one that must be made now.

“This problem is likely going to get worse every day,” Petty said. “We owe it to ourselves to recognize the truth of that and we owe it to our citizens to speak truthfully about it.”

Molly Rawn, CEO of the Advertising and Promotion Commission which operates the Experience Fayetteville visitors bureau, said while the entire purpose of her role is to convince people to visit restaurants and hotels in Fayetteville, in the past few days it has become impossible for her to do so in a responsible way. She urged the council to support the ordinance.

The original proposal called for regulation of gatherings with 50 or more people, as recommended Sunday by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

Rawn said she’d spoken to restaurant owners who brought up the fact that 50 people in a small restaurant could potentially be more dangerous than 50 people in a larger space. She said she’s been asked if it would be smarter to set a limit on the percentage of a space’s overall capacity rather than set a blanket number for all places.

Council Member Sarah Marsh first suggested changing the language to limit the amount of people in a gathering place to 50% of the space’s overall occupancy. But with the quickly changing nature of the virus, Marsh said it would make more sense to simply remove any specifics from the ordinance to allow the mayor to implement any current recommendations from the CDC, considering new information from the White House Monday had recommended people avoid groups of over 10 people.

Ben Mills, owner of Fossil Cove Brewing, said he spoke to his insurance company on Monday and was told that closures due to pandemics are not covered in his policy. He said he stands to be affected heavily by the regulations since the majority of his business comes from walk-in customers, and over 50% of his distribution is to other businesses that would also be affected by the measure.

“This is a very emotional moment for us,” Mills said.

Marsh’s suggested amendment was approved 8-0 before unanimous approval of the full measure, meaning here will be no specific limitations set by the ordinance, and it will be entirely up to the mayor to set limitations as long as what he enacts is officially recommended by the CDC.

City staff said if any regulations are enacted, that news will be distributed to the public and the media through all the normal channels, including the city’s website, email newsletters, press releases and social media posts.

Mayor Jordan said this is not something he wanted to do, but he felt like it might be the only choice at this point.

“A decision like this creates weight because you know that whatever choice you make you’re going to impact someone, and I don’t want to hurt anyone,” he said. “But the time has come to take action, and take action quickly. This virus is growing every day. We are in a serious health crisis and we must be proactive instead of reactive. I promise to make the best decision I can to try and protect everyone.”

Jordan said he will take full responsibility for whatever comes of his actions.

“This is a serious situation, but we are strong people and we will get through this together,” said Jordan.