Mayor Chokwe A. Lumumba talked tough Monday to people and businesses violating his executive orders in the capital city. Those include a ban on gatherings of 10 or more people and a limit to restaurant operations, which can only offer delivery or take-out services. Bars will remain closed, and non-essential City employees are still required to work from home.
“I thank those citizens who have taken proper precaution, who have taken this circumstance seriously, and I admonish those who have not,” the mayor said during a March 30 press conference. He noted that businesses found to be in violation of his executive orders would be reprimanded for endangering public safety.
“We are aware of at least a couple of gatherings that exceeded the number of our order, and you will see later on this week, we are very serious about people adhering to those guidelines,” he said.
“[If] we know, such as I have been informed, of any business, of any nightclub, that is still open in the midst of this pandemic, not only will we shut you down in the strictest ways, we have legal authority to cut your power off,” Lumumba said. “So we’re going to cut your power off, and we will do everything that we can to make certain that you know we are not playing, and we will make it difficult for you to open back once this pandemic is done.”
Under Gov. Tate Reeves’ recent executive order, mayors and local officials have the right to enforce social-distancing rules on local businesses that are not included in the governor’s list of essential orders that are exempt. The governor also limited social and other non-essential gatherings statewide to groups of 10 or fewer, with exceptions. “This does not apply to normal operations of locations like airports, medical and healthcare facilities, retail shopping including grocery and department stores, offices, factories and other manufacturing facilities or any Essential Business or Operation as determined by and identified below,” Reeves’ order stated.
Reeves’ order has drawn criticism from local and national media and elected officials. Ward 2 Councilman Melvin Priester Jr. praised leadership in Jackson for implementing what he described as some of the strictest policies in Mississippi aimed at preventing the virus’ spread. But Priester warned that the City of Jackson’s efforts are futile if other municipalities in the state do not follow suit.
“Unfortunately, I think Jackson is in a real bind, because we need to have centralized agreements between Jackson and all the surrounding communities to all do the same things,” the councilman said. “It doesn’t do us any good if we close things down and other places are still open,” Priester told the Jackson Free Press late last week.
Council President Virgi Lindsay of Ward 7 also expressed concerns about the confusion stemming from the conflicting orders.
“I think the lack of cohesive planning is a danger,” she told the Jackson Free Press on March 27.
Mayor Calls for "Leadership from the Top"
At press time, the Mississippi State Department of Health confirmed 937 total COVID-19 diagnoses and 20 deaths, including 90 new cases and 4 new deaths since 6 p.m., March 30. Ninety people are infected in Hinds County alone. The data is based on 4,454 total tests administered through the MSDH Public Health Laboratory.
During a March 31 appearance on MSBNC, Lumumba remarked on the confusion stemming from Reeves’ order, the importance of daily communication to reassure and inform both the public and local leadership, and the urgency of a more strict and uniform approach to preventing COVID-19 spread in Mississippi.
“In the midst of crisis, one of the first casualties is trust,” the mayor said.
Jackson is not only the most densely populated city in Mississippi and the capital, but it is also the health-care capital of the state, the mayor pointed out. The lack of a cohesive, consistent, stringent statewide policy to fight the virus has far-reaching consequences, he said, and undermines his administration’s efforts to protect residents.
“The problem is that we need a uniform policy,” Lumumba said. “When I impose strict standards to make certain that we are flattening the curve, and then my neighbors, my neighboring cities may not take the same measures, then it renders it inefficient, because our communities are too interconnected.”
The mayor said that effectively mitigating the crisis “requires leadership from the top.”
“That leadership from the top is able to create a uniform policy that maintains the safety of all residents, with all of the cities within the state of Mississippi and beyond,” he said.
Tupelo Mayor Jason Shelton is among other local leaders in Mississippi expressing similar concerns since Reeves signed his executive order. "The concerns are twofold: If we’re going to flatten the curve, we have to listen to our doctors, to our scientists," Shelton said last week on the Katy Tur Show on MSNBC. "The second is, there’s very little in the governor’s order. Mississippians are being left to the cities and counties to take action, and every one of them [is] doing something different. If Tupelo closes non-essential businesses, it’s sending people by car to neighboring cities, which is exacerbating the problem. … We need consistent and uniform policy from the national and state level. What we’ve seen is the goalposts keep moving."
At a March 31 press conference announcing a shelter-in-place order for Lauderdale County only, Reeves downplayed mayors' concerns about inconsistencies in rules between cities and the counties surrounding them. In answer to the question about inconsistent rules between places meaning people may just shop and frequent areas with weaker policies, Reeves said he is "confident that Mississippians are smart enough, patriotic enough to pay attention to what we're saying" and not endanger each other. Government, he added, cannot be fully responsible.
Reeves' executive order leaves it up to local officials to impose any tougher rules on non-essential businesses, which has created some gray areas that have employees in central Mississippi worried. He also has it made it clear that it up to local officials to enforce the 10-or-fewer group rules his executive order imposes on non-essential gatherings and businesses and several exemptions including department stores, shopping centers and offices.
Lumumba also confirmed that several confused Mississippi mayors had reached out to him following Reeves’ executive order to ask for advice on how to balance their local orders with that of the governor’s. Lumumba said that he spoke with Reeves last week, in part to clear up such confusions.
“The governor and I agreed after that discussion that his order would stand as a minimal standard,” Lumumba said. He added that “we need to be able to have daily briefings that clears these issues up” and called for “constant and consistent communication” between the governor and the City of Jackson.
On March 26, the Jackson Police Department confirmed that it was also enforcing the ban on public gatherings. JPD Officer Sam Brown told the Jackson Free Press that violations of the executive order would result in the arrest and prosecution of individuals, whom the JPD will charge with misdemeanors. To prevent the spread of COVID-19, however, the JPD is no longer booking people in jail for misdemeanor offenses. Instead, the department is releasing individuals with a ticket and field release form indicating a future court date.
The mayor added that he would soon announce a more stringent policy aimed at curbing COVID-19 spread in Jackson later in the week. “You can expect a more strict protocol in place later this week,” he said.
Cathead Distillery Offering Free Hand Sanitizer to Jackson Residents
The Jackson-based spirits producer Cathead Distillery has partnered with the City of Jackson to donate free hand sanitizer to the residents of Jackson. Residents can fill up their own bottles, limited to 12 ounces per person, at four dispensaries located throughout Jackson: the Walmart off Highway 18 and Corner Market branches in Belhaven, Fondren and Maywood Mart.
The dispensaries will be open Tuesday, March 31, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., while supplies last. A City spokeswoman confirmed that the dispensaries would continue operating daily until supplies ran out.
At a press conference on Monday, Mayor Chokwe A. Lumumba lauded Cathead Distillery, cofounded by locals Richard Patrick and Austin Evans, for “its shared sacrifice and commitment” to supporting the safety and health of Jackson residents. “Cathead Distillery has made the choice, has made the decision, seeing that we are in the midst of the global pandemic, to provide their resources to benefit the greater good,” Lumumba said.
The distillery has produced 42 tons of hand sanitizer since March 22 to address shortages amid the COVID-19 outbreak, Patrick confirmed. In addition to selling the sanitizer to the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency, Entergy and the Mississippi Department of Transportation to fulfill the needs of critical infrastructure businesses that continue to operate during the pandemic, Cathead is donating four 55-gallon drums for distribution to Jackson residents.
“It’s been a big undertaking to pivot our operations so quickly,” Patrick said of the transition from making spirits to producing sanitizer, “but I just want to further say that our team has done an incredible job getting this done and getting out there.”
“For the foreseeable future, we’re focused on critical-infrastructure businesses and federal and state and local businesses that absolutely need this product the most,” he added.
Mayor: ‘It Is Our Collective Genius, It Is Our Collective Will’
Lumumba praised Cathead Distillery for its “generosity” and “philanthropic heart.” Lumumba also highlighted other local businesses that have stepped in to take care of the public at a time of need.
“We’d like to thank Cathead for being a partner, for being a good corporate citizen, at this very critical moment in time. I am humbled by efforts such as that displayed by Cathead Vodka today and many other businesses across this city,” Lumumba said. He pointed to Fine and Dandy restaurant, which is currently operating as a local grocery store, as an example of how local businesses have come together to provide relief to residents.
Read breaking coverage of COVID-19 in Mississippi, plus safety tips, cancellations, more in the JFP's archive.
“What we are seeing is Jackson at its very best. We are seeing Jackson businesses and Jackson citizens displaying love for one another, displaying a common concern for one another,” the mayor said. “And it is our collective genius, it is our collective will, to work together and to make certain that we protect each other that will allow us to rise out of this circumstance to a better place.”
The mayor and Patrick urged residents to honor the 12-ounce limit of free hand-sanitizer per person so that others can also fill up.
“We are asking that people use this as needed and sparingly, understanding that we want as many people as we possibly can to take advantage of this generous donation,” Lumumba said.
A member of the Mayor’s administration will oversee each dispensary location. People visiting the dispensaries are encouraged to continue exercising social distancing, standing 6 feet apart from others and while in line. While residents must bring their own bottles to fill, the City and Cathead Distillery are providing labels to people in an effort to prevent confusion, such as accidental consumption of hand sanitizer.
“This is a moment in time which requires that we provide brutal honesty to the citizens about the pandemic that we are suffering from, but at the same time, provide a rational basis for hope,” Lumumba said, noting that the actions of Cathead Distillery gave hope to residents of Jackson and demonstrated the power of collective coordination.
CLARIFICATION: An earlier version of this story stated that Cathead Distillery was selling hand-sanitizer at the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency, Entergy and the Mississippi Department of Transportation. While the language at the press conference indicated that Cathead Distillery was selling their product "at" these agencies, they are in fact selling to those agencies. We have updated the story to reflect this.
Read the JFP’s coverage of COVID-19 at jacksonfreepress.com/covid19. Get more details on preventive measures here. Read about announced closings and delays in Mississippi here. Read MEMA’s advice for a COVID-19 preparedness kit here.
Email information about closings and other vital related logistical details to [email protected].
Email state reporter Nick Judin, who is covering COVID-19 in Mississippi, at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @nickjudin. Seyma Bayram is covering the outbreak inside the capital city and in the criminal-justice system. Email her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @seymabayram0.