Impatient with what they consider Gov. Tate Reeves’ lack of guidance amid the COVID-19 outbreak, some Mississippi mayors recently placed protective restrictions on their towns’ residents and businesses.
Then, Reeves issued his own sweeping executive order.
But which takes precedence?
That’s the question leaders of some of the state’s largest cities and counties found themselves scrambling to answer on Wednesday.
“I would’ve preferred that the governor enacted an executive order sooner that impacted all of us the same so we weren’t creating confusion for people,” Starkville Mayor Lynn Spruill told Mississippi Today, adding that the city would follow Reeves’ order.
“But now that it’s done, we’ll have the continuity and clarity that keeps us from enacting the things that are specific to us but might not match neighboring communities.”
Reeves’ legal team designed the executive order to serve as a minimum standard for the state’s cities and counties, his office said on Wednesday. But confusion subsequently abounded in town halls across the state as Reeves’ statewide order clashed with orders local governments had previously passed.
The statewide order, which Reeves signed Tuesday evening, considers most businesses in the state as “essential” and are therefore exempt. Several cities and counties had previously defined “essential businesses” more narrowly.
For example, the governor’s order limits gatherings in public or private places to no more than 10 people, but allows restaurants to keep dining rooms open as long as fewer than 10 people are inside at once. Many cities and counties had previously required restaurants to close their dining rooms completely.
Reeves’ order is not as broad as gubernatorial declarations in other states — many of which have included stay-at-home orders — and does not outline any enforcement measures that can be taken against people or businesses that violate the order.
Several mayors joined conference calls on Wednesday to compare notes and try to determine what, if anything, should be done at the local level to reach compliance with the governor’s order.
Amid the confusion at the local level, staffers for Reeves fielded several calls from mayors and local attorneys seeking clarification on Wednesday. Reeves himself participated in a conference call on Wednesday afternoon with representatives of the Mississippi Municipal League and several of the state’s mayors to discuss the ramifications of his order.
The City of Oxford called an emergency board of aldermen meeting on Wednesday to determine how their previously passed resolutions fit with the governor’s.
“We’d read the governor’s order and believed from our first reading that it would supersede the resolutions we had in place,” Oxford Mayor Robyn Tannehill said in the meeting. “We felt that ours would not be able to stay in place based on the language in the order. But I just got off the phone with the governor, and we’ve come to the conclusion that all our resolutions can stay in place.”
Tupelo Mayor Jason Shelton — who blasted Reeves publicly last week, highlighting “just an abdication of leadership at the highest level of the state of Mississippi” — is expected to issue an amended order on Wednesday to comply with the governor’s statewide order, the Daily Journal reported. The Tupelo City Council is meeting Wednesday evening to discuss the matter.
Vicksburg Mayor George Flaggs told Mississippi Today he has not changed his city’s policies based on the governor’s order and said he does not believe the order limits what he can do in his town to fight the virus. Local officials closed restaurant dining rooms in the city of Vicksburg last week and issued a nightly curfew from 11 p.m. until 5 a.m.
“The governor is giving us discretion on a lot of things,” Flaggs said. “I applaud what he is doing. I am going to take measures in Vicksburg to make sure our people are safe and to minimize the costs to our people.”
Clarksdale Mayor Chuck Espy, who also implemented a citywide curfew, said he saw the governor’s executive order as on a “parallel track headed in the same direction as us.”
“The governor’s order technically does not factor into the directive that we give to the citizens of Clarksdale,” Espy told Mississippi Today. “His order is speaking toward businesses, but our directive is toward the citizens that live in Clarksdale. The governor can choose to allow his orders to proceed however he sees fit, but our orders will remain related. I view them as two separate items.”
Renae Eze, a spokeswoman for Reeves said the governor is following a “state managed, locally executed” principle.
“…Governor Reeves’ latest executive order sets a statewide standard in terms of social distancing and defining essential businesses to slow the spread and protect public health,” Eze said in a statement to Mississippi Today. “This establishes statewide parameters that local leaders on the front lines can build on to make decisions that are in the best interest of their communities.”
Bobby Harrison contributed to this report.