The Mobile City Council this morning approved the expenditure of $500,000 to be used as part of Mayor Sandy Stimpson’s “Ignite Mobile” grant program to help some small businesses hurt by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The grants of $1,500 or $2,500 each would go to businesses and individuals who run or are employed in what Gov. Kay Ivey has determined are close-contact occupations and were not allowed to reopen under her new Safer at Home guidelines.
The businesses eligible for the grants include barbershops, salons, bowling alleys, entertainment venues, nightclubs, tourist attractions, indoor children’s play areas, venues operated by social clubs, gyms, spans, commercial swimming pools, yoga studios, dance facilities, tattoo parlors, tanning salons, waxing salons and massage parlors.
The grants are open for those businesses or individuals who have to have been unable to receive any other government help, either through unemployment or the Small Business Administration.
Business owners as well as employees and independent contractors of the businesses are eligible for the grants. This includes barbershops and salons, which often allow contractors to rent chairs. However, those contractors are required to get a city business license, as that is the mechanism by which the mayor’s office will be reaching out to applicants and writing checks.
The program will be the subject of a public hearing on Tuesday, May 12, but the week before the council approval of the funds and the approval of the program will allow the mayor’s office to receive applications and write checks that will be distributed after the expected approval next week, Stimpson said.
There appeared to be some confusion on which barbers and stylists were required to have a business license. Councilman Fred Richardson said he’d heard from constituents that a barber only needs a license from the state board in order to do business in the city. City Attorney Ricardo Woods corrected him and compared barbers to attorneys. He said each attorney in a law office has to have their own business license and it’s no different for stylists.
“We’re not licensing them to be barbers,” Woods said. “We’re giving them a license to operate within the confines of the city and to pay taxes.”
Richardson argued that when he goes to the doctor he sees the physician’s medical license and various degrees, but never sees a business license. Councilman John Williams, whose wife Maurenn Baldy is a dentist, corrected Richardson, stating the office he and Baldy own together has two city-issued licenses. One is for the dentist and another is for the business itself.
“We don’t have one license,” he said. “We have two.”
Councilwoman Bess Rich, whose husband is in the medical profession, agreed with Williams and told Richardson to urge his constituents to apply for the needed licenses.
Council President Levon Manzie didn’t disagree with his colleagues, but said the way they view business licenses may not be the same in “other salons, or in other communities.”
“In my community, a guy opens a shop and has four chairs,” he said. “He then advertises that he has three chairs to rent. I can’t recall going into a shop and seeing individual business licenses. We may need to do an educational period.”
Deputy City Attorney Flo Kessler told councilors that anyone who does not currently have a business license can easily apply for one online.
In other business, the council approved a formal recommendation that face masks be worn in public. The suggestion does not attach any fines to the recommendation and won’t be enforced. However, some councilors felt it would send a message to residents. Richardson noted that Mobile County now has the most COVID-19 cases with more than 1,200.
“I’m hopeful we will be sending a positive message to our citizens to help keep them safe,” Richardson said. “We’ve become a hotbed for this virus and people are still going into businesses, or to drive-ins with people serving food and not wearing masks.”
Rich agreed with Richardson, saying it echoes Mobile County Health Officer Bert Eichold’s “strong recommendation.”
Williams, who abstained from the 6-0 vote, said shoppers have a choice to go into any grocery store they like and should choose the one that makes them feel safe.
“I have a choice to go into a store, or not go into a store,” he said. “I have a choice to go where I feel safe.”
Williams said he thought the recommendation would “mislead” residents and didn’t want to support it. He repeated a phrase he said Richardson had used before about the council having no say in public health matters. The responsibility, he said, again attributing the words to Richardson, falls on the Mobile County Health Department and not the city.
“It’s not our responsibility as a council to tell anybody what to do in this regard,” he said.
Manzie argued that due to transportation limitations, some in his neighborhoods didn’t have a choice as to where to shop or eat. He said many were stuck with the fast food or grocery options closest to their homes and this recommendation would protect them.
“I don’t think this is out of the ordinary,” Manzie said. “There are other cities in this state now requiring masks …. This is a good first step and hopefully it’s the only one needed.”
The council also approved a contract for nasal swab kits to test the homeless population and any resident of Mobile’s public housing who is age 55 and older. Senior Director of Community Development Jamey Roberts said Franklin Primary Health Clinic would be administering the testing and would start with Central Plaza Towers. In addition to the testing, the city donated N95 masks to the Mobile Housing Board to help keep residents and employees safe.
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