Newark won’t keep pursuing a bill that would have stopped bar service in the college town, but a proposal to allow police to break up private gatherings of 10 or more is still alive.
The bills had been on the City Council’s agenda Monday night, but the council went into executive session to discuss them. The mayor cited a state law that allows them to do that when they are consulting with an attorney. Executive sessions are private and not a part of the public record.
Days before the council meeting, a lawyer representing some 2,000 unnamed businesses served the Newark City Council a cease and desist letter regarding the bill that had the potential to remove bar seating from restaurants, City Manager Tom Coleman said.
The letter claimed the emergency ordinance would violate the due process clauses of the constitution. The letter also said coronavirus statistics had been moving in the right direction in the Newark area. “I don’t know if this plays into the decision that was made Monday night, but it seems like it,” Coleman said.
Regardless, neither bill was in a final form for a vote, he said. The bills were last-minute additions to Monday’s agenda for discussion, he said.
Both bills were designed to stop a potential rise in COVID-19 cases as University of Delaware students return to school. An outbreak could threaten city residents and businesses, and perhaps even cause UD to go to all virtual classes and send students home, as it did in the spring, Newark Mayor Jerry Clifton has said.
He pointed to an outbreak in the Delaware beaches in early summer that led to bars being closed there over the Fourth of July weekend. State health officials said people there were socializing without masks and social distancing. Clifton said he didn’t want things like that to happen in Newark.
“The council seems to favor that instead of passing an ordinance, the city is going to try and enforce the rules better that are already in place by the state,” Coleman said.
Coleman said the city is planning to meet with the Delaware Department of Health and Social Services about relying on their enforcement on the rules.
Clifton noted that the state had been doing a good job with enforcing rules in the southern part of Delaware, and thought that now was the time for them to focus on the north.
The mayor was not happy about the decisions.
“I was partially disappointed,” Clifton said in a phone call Wednesday, “This tells me that I might have wasted a lot of time here. It tells me that the restaurants have no interest in a compromise here.”
He had been in favor of working with restaurants about bar seating.
“I think the ordinance is dead in the water,” said Clifton. “Some bars seem to have the allegiance of some of the council members.”
Coleman said the bills were on the agenda because one council member wanted to vote on them. The mayor had said before the meeting that he thought the issue might be headed to the attorney general’s office or to court.
This was the last regular council meeting scheduled before UD students return. While UD has said most classes will be online, some will be in person and some students will be back on campus.
All seven council members seemed to be in favor of limits on gatherings in private homes, Coleman said.
“We’re in a different place than we were in this spring, but we’re still worried about indoor crowds and house parties,” the city manager said.
The main point of debate on the issue is the number of people that the ordinance would allow to be together. Some had suggested the limit be 15 for indoor gatherings.
“I think 10 should be the number,” Clifton said. ”The larger you make the number, the more you encourage parties.”
Coleman thinks the number should be higher for outdoor parties.
There has also been talk about creating a permitting system for larger crowds.
“The permitting system would be for gatherings outside, and it would mean that you could get a permit for a gathering with a number of people higher than the ordinance,” Coleman said.
The system would in part incentivize outdoor activity rather than inside, because fresh moving air seems to lower the spread of COVID-19. Restaurants cite that fact all the time when applying for more space outside to serve customers.
“I suggested we do the permitted Monday night,” Clifton said, “We should still have a maximum number of people as well as a time limit. This would work good for one-off events.”
Coleman believes that the gatherings bill will be passed as an emergency ordinance before the start of the fall UD semester. Then, a regular ordinance will be passed before the emergency ordinance expires to make the bill more permanent, he said.
Coleman said Thursday that he expected the council to discuss the bill Monday.