By Victoria Hosey
The Board of Aldermen voted in a special meeting Thursday afternoon to keep masks mandatory in all indoor spaces such as restaurants, banks, bars and stores in the city of Oxford.
While a statewide mask mandate issued by Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves expired on Wednesday at 5 p.m., the Board called the meeting in the hopes of keeping Oxford’s mask mandate in place. Local governments in Mississippi are allowed to issue mandates more restrictive (but not less) than ones ordered by the state government.
The vote was 5-1 in favor of the new mask regulations, which will allow for masks to be non-mandatory in outside spaces unless it is impossible to social distance, such as in lines for restaurants and concession stands. Alderman Preston Taylor voted against the motion and motioned to keep the Board’s previous mask regulations in place. However, the motion died for lack of a second.
“I believe that these masks are critical for us indoors, and the majority of our citizens feel more comfortable going into businesses and continuing to keep our economy going strong if masks are present,” said Mayor Robyn Tannehill.
Tannehill also cited Oxford’s special circumstance as a university town as reasoning for keeping a citywide mandate in place. Tannehill said she had spoken with Dr. Thomas Dobbs, director of the Mississippi State Department of Health, on Wednesday about the matter.
Tannehill quoted Dobbs, stating “He said, ‘It’s hard to overstate the benefits of wearing a mask in public, especially for a college town like Oxford where so many visitors come and go. Adding to this risk, college students are especially high risk for COVID… Given the uniquely high risk of transmission in Oxford, it makes sense for you to maintain a local mask mandate.’”
Alderman Jason Bailey made the point that shoppers are more likely to continue visiting local businesses if they feel safe, and part of that is requiring masks indoors.
“Whether we like it or not, I think the masks are an economic driver for us right now,” Bailey said.
In its twelfth resolution to its Serving Oxford Safely policy, the Board also voted to raise the capacity of businesses from 50% to 75%, provided six feet of social distancing is adhered to. This does not apply to restaurants, which were already operating at 75%.
This alteration brings Oxford businesses up to the same capacity level as the statewide 75% limit issued by Gov. Tate Reeves, which currently runs through Nov. 11. Tannehill said these rules do not apply to “religious entities, voting precincts, students in classrooms or gatherings governed by other capacity limitations.”
Group gatherings will remain at the previously decided limit of 10 people indoors and 25 people outdoors.
Other changes on Thursday included allowing parties of up to 10 people to be seated together at restaurants instead of six.
Businesses will now also be able to stay open for an extra hour Monday through Saturday (regardless of whether or not it is a football game weekend), extending closing time from 10 to 11 p.m. The Board was split on this issue with a 3-3 vote. Tannehill voted in favor of the new requirements, breaking the tie. Aldermen Howell-Atkinson, Taylor and Addy voted against the motion.
Alderman John Morgan made a motion to the Board to include Sunday in the list of days with extended closing times. However, according to Tannehill, because Sunday’s 9 p.m. closing time has been in place long before COVID-19 as part of an alcohol ordinance, it could not be included in the changes made to the emergency mandate discussed at Thursday’s meeting.
Also changed was the capacity limit for receptions and conference centers in Oxford. The limit for these venues will now be 50% of their maximum seating capacity. If an event is a reception (seated dinners only) the capacity will now be 75% with 10 guests allowed per table.
Auditoriums and movie theaters will now be allowed to fill up to 50% of their maximum seating capacity, both indoors and outdoors, in alignment with state regulations. A rule that required stylists and others involved in the personal care industry to serve only one client at a time has been lifted, as well as restrictions on having customers in waiting rooms.