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Bonne Terre wrestles with COVID ordinance
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Bonne Terre wrestles with COVID ordinance

City wrestles with COVID ordinance

City Attorney Seth Pegram and City Clerk Mary Topping prepare for the city council meeting in which a COVID-19 ordinance was discussed. Sitting six feet apart from each other on the dais are Councilman Erik Schonhardt, City Administrator Shawn Kay and Councilwoman Julie Williams-Hahn. Joining by phone were Mayor Brandon Hubbard, Councilwoman Andrea Richardson and Councilman Bruce Pratte.

Bonne Terre City Council members on Monday considered an ordinance to take further municipal measures against the spread of COVID-19, but stopped short of passing it, due to the impracticality of enacting stricter measures than other local, county, state or national governmental entities were willing to consider at this time.

City Administrator Shawn Kay said the ordinance and the meeting were arranged before the wedding at Heritage Hall took place on March 14, “just to get out ahead of things.”

“This isn’t in reaction to that event, but if we’d had something in place beforehand, we might have been able to head it off at the pass,” he said. “The council is not wanting to get into that. They’re preferring (stricter measures) be handled at the state and national level.

“Because you and I both know, if we put something in place and Farmington and Park Hills does not, people are just going to drive over there anyway, to eat, shop, and possibly spread the virus.”

As a precaution, three council members — Andrea Richardson, Bruce Pratte and Mayor Brandon Hubbard — joined the meeting by conference call. The rest of the people in the council chambers, consisting of two council members, the police and fire chiefs, the city attorney, city administrator, city clerk and a member of the media, spread out with six feet between them. No other citizens were present.

City Attorney Seth Pegram had created an ordinance “to declare a local state of emergency and to set forth guidelines to protect the public health, safety and welfare of the resident of the city of Bonne Terre in response to COVID-19.”

Pegram said he put the ordinance together using examples from St. Louis city and county, but he cautioned against adopting it at this time in case the state came through with stricter precautions and measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. He also cautioned citizens might complain that their rights were being trampled on by city government, especially if county, state and federal governments were not enacting stricter measures.

“It's a mess, no matter how you want to look at it. It's a mess for health, it's a mess for safety. It's a mess for cities and municipalities and counties trying to understand even what they should or should not be doing,” he said.

“I'm not saying that we're outside of the scope of the authority from what ordinances allow here, or what might be appropriate. But every little step infringing on those rights to move about freely, as they're so eloquently put in the Constitution — life, liberty and pursuit of happiness, which would include those rights to freely move about and make your own decisions as to what is safe or not — get us closer and closer to the idea that somebody will complain.”

Pegram said Gov. Mike Parson has an entire staff and statewide government focused on the notion of not enacting further restrictions.

“Other states have made other choices, that's up to their governments. I know that some of the cities and counties that have passed, over the last week, certain ordinances and declarations for emergency that we've gone over,” he said. “They've gone further, but a lot of those were issued before our governor even said a thing.”

Police Chief Doug Calvert observed there might be difficulty in enforcing any stricter provisions to guard against the spread of the virus, with three confirmed St. Francois County cases.

“If we establish curfews and things like that, how are we supposed to enforce that, because we can't jail them. And (St. Francois County Jail) will not take them,” he said. “We don't have any National Guard unit right now to police people who would violate a curfew. I'm not opposed to the ordinance necessarily, I'm just looking at how we would even go about enforcing it without creating more widespread panic.”

Pegram said the ordinance was written to address various stages of direness, if the pandemic should spread to that point. If the ordinance had passed, the first phase would have declared a state of emergency, allowing certain closures of public facilities, limiting gatherings to less than 10 people, closing restaurants to internal service, but still allowing for operations for delivery and curbside to go.

Much of that is already happening on a voluntary basis in the city, due to the governor’s entreaties and CDC guidelines.

“But then there's a second provision that basically designates our city administrator as the point person for all this,” Pegram said. “As the emergencies officer, if he feels that there is something that bad going on, if there is looting, riots, something like this gives him some emergency power in very short bursts of time to say, we are going to impose a curfew, we are going to close some streets and roadways because it is problematic to have them open, but it also reserves the time limitations on that.”

In terms of enforcing the ordinance, the approach would be the same with any ordinance enforced currently: “politely, with the best possible judgment, you can use with your officers and hope to accomplish the goal of what you're doing, without having to get to the need of taking people into custody or any physical interaction.” Pegram added in that situation, police could ticket violations of curfew, similar to what’s being done in Europe.

Calvert said, “it's been my experience out on the street with the businesses and people I've been visiting with, they are already observing a lot of what's in this ordinance.”

“And that's where I get back to the idea of cost and benefit what really is the problem we're trying to address immediately versus what is the cost to doing that, as a city, and not letting citizens on their own, take those steps and make their choices because I haven't seen any place in the region yet where it's just been chaos,” Pegram said.

“Well, my biggest concern is people will generally go along with something for a week or two, you know, based on snowstorms, ice storms, whatever,” Calvetr said. “But as this drags on, they're going to become less and less tolerant and even if there is food at Save A Lot or Country Mart, they're not gonna have the money to buy it. And that's when the problem is really going to get out-of-hand.”

Talk drifted to potential circumstances if the pandemic worsens: travel papers for essential workers might need to be obtained from FEMA, reciprocal agreements among cities in the county if essential city workers fall ill while keeping essential city services going, PPEs for police and fire, and different ways of handling fire or law enforcement activities.

Ultimately, the council chose to table the ordinance at the present time. “As long as it's ready to go, and all we need is quick notice to approve it, when we need to,” Richardson said. “I just want to make sure we're prepared for worst-case scenarios, as well.”

In summarizing the ordinance discussion after the meeting, Kay said it was a good exercise to create the ordinance, and if deemed necessary, pass it within 24 hours.

“The initial thought was, before we decided to table it, we’ll put the ordinance together and put it in place,” he said. “Now, it’s the last-ditch effort in case the federal and state government won’t take those steps and things begin to really devolve. The council doesn’t want to do that, but if there’s a void in the leadership further up the chain, our council is willing to step in and be the leaders Bonne Terre needs.”

Sarah Haas is the assistant editor for the Daily Journal. She can be reached at 573-518-3617 or at shaas@dailyjournalonline.com.

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