The Mobile City Council, on Tuesday, voted 5-2 to ban large groups on public property to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.
The resolution, sponsored by Councilman Fred Richardson, will temporarily outlaw congregating at parks and other city-owned facilities. Richardson had the resolution added to the agenda after witnessing large groups playing soccer and basketball at Herndon-Sage Park in Midtown.
“What I have found is there are a lot of people congregating on city property,” he told colleagues during a pre-conference meeting. “At Sage Park this weekend, people were wall-to-wall up there. They’re not paying us any attention.”
The resolution does not close the parks and users can still visit city property, as long as they maintain 6 feet of separation, he said.
Councilmen Joel Daves and John Williams were the dissenting vote on the resolution members of Mayor Sandy Stimpson’s administration said would be hard to enforce.
“It would be very difficult to enforce the complete closure of parks,” Public Works Director Jim DeLapp said. “It would be difficult because we don’t have the manpower to put people around all the parks, especially the huge parks.”
Williams implied it was unnecessary, given Gov. Kay Ivey’s previous order limiting gatherings to 25 people or less.
“There already is an order in place,” Williams said. “There already is a law in place. If this order is not clear enough for us then let’s talk to the governor so we can all speak with one voice.”
The councilors who voted in favor of the resolution, including Bess Rich, who voted through teleconferencing, told councilors that helping to get the message out through this action was a good idea.
Daves said he has no issue with additional messaging, but refused to vote for an item that couldn’t be enforced.
“This is a very blunt vehicle,” he said. “This is a sledgehammer when a scalpel will do.”
Richardson criticized this characterization, adding that folks had ignored the scalpel to this point. He also argued that the resolution was about keeping citizens safe and accused those voting against for not wanting to keep citizens safe.
“It’s our job to protect the citizens and a vote against this is saying ‘let’s not protect them,’” Richardson said. “I don’t care what you say. A rose by any other name would smell the same.”
DeLapp stopped just short of calling the measure unnecessary.
“I think it’s putting an exclamation point on something that doesn’t need it,” he said.
Instead of passing a resolution, DeLapp said the administration is recommending an increase in “presence patrols” by the Mobile Police Department.
“So then if they see a large group congregating then they can break it up,” he said. “That’s the first step.”
The next step, DeLapp said, would be to close parking lots at parks and recreation facilities to prevent visitors from driving to the property.
“Clearly having people jog through the park individually, walk or bike should not be prohibited,” he said.
The parks and recreation department is already in the process of removing rims from basketball hoops and dismantling hand-operating lighting to prevent park visitors from playing on courts or in fields, Parks and Recreation Director Shonda Smith said.
DeLapp told councilors that simply locking the gated basketball courts had not prevented players from using them. Instead, he said, the locks were broken and the fencing was damaged.
Smith said the department tried to put up yellow tape around playgrounds, but visitors simply removed it. The department can replace that with barricades, she said.
Public Safety Director James Barber admitted the adoption of the resolution wouldn’t hurt police efforts to break up large gatherings. He said Ivey’s earlier declaration already gave law enforcement the authority to do it.
Council Vice President C.J. Small admitted to being on the fence about the resolution because he wanted to leave an option open for youth to have somewhere to go during the day, while the number of confirmed infections in Mobile remained low. However, he said he was not against the idea of messaging and putting more exclamation points behind Ivey’s order.
For the first time, two members of the council voted on items related to COVID-19 through a teleconferencing feature, thanks to an order from Ivey allowing it on a limited basis. While the pre-conference meeting was interrupted a number of times because Council President Levon Manzie and Rich told their colleagues they couldn’t hear, by the time the regular meeting took place, it appeared most of the kinks had been worked out.
At the meeting, councilors discussed the possibility of future meetings being held remotely, if the body could not meet with an in-person quorum of five. Councilwoman Gina Gregory suggested asking Ivey for more flexibility to be able to vote remotely on items in a less limited fashion.
Ivey’s order allows for members to meet and vote remotely only on items essential to the minimal operation of city government and on items related to COVID-19.
Williams argued that only items directly related to the virus should be considered under a new header on the council’s agenda, while others felt the header should include more items to prevent a backlog.
The council also discussed the handling of future public hearings, during Tuesday’s pre-conference meeting. City Clerk Lisa Lambert told councilors they could advise those in attendance to leave and allow those with a stake in a particular public hearing to enter the chamber.
The council has suspended all public, in-person petitions and presentations for 30 days. However, public comments can be submitted to Lambert 30 minutes prior to the start of the meeting. Those comments will be read and made a part of the meeting minutes. Those comments can be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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