Newark City Council on Monday passed an emergency ordinance banning private gatherings of 10 or more people, as well as dine-in service at restaurants.
The unprecedented measures come as the city, and the nation as a whole, attempt to come to grips with the growing threat of the coronavirus.
Under the law, which is active for up to 60 days, the Newark Police Department is empowered to break up gatherings of 10 or more people and disperse crowds of 10 or more people along streets and sidewalks.
The law is aimed at curbing parties at off-campus houses and backyards but also applies to funerals, weddings and other events. Council considered but decided against carving out exemptions for events like funerals.
Violators can be fined a minimum of $200 for a first offense and $400 for subsequent offenses.
The law also specifies restaurants may only offer take-out, delivery or drive-thru service. No indoor or outdoor seating for food and beverage service, including the use of outdoor patios, is permitted. That portion of the law will be enforced by the city’s code enforcement officers.
The provision applying to businesses mirrors the restrictions imposed by Gov. John Carney earlier in the day, but the law goes much farther than the governor’s actions by extending to private gatherings.
In addition, the city is revoking solicitation permits to stop businesses from soliciting door-to-door. It does not apply to religious or political solicitation, which do not need permits.
The law was passed through the Newark’s rarely-used emergency ordinance procedures. While most proposed ordinances must be advertised at least a week in advance, Newark’s charter does allow for emergency ordinances “to meet a public emergency affecting life, health, property or the public peace.” By law, emergency ordinances expire after 60 days unless made permanent through the normal legislative process.
“We have to protect our neighbors, and I see this as one of the best ways we can do that,” Councilwoman Jen Wallace said, adding that she takes the freedom of assembly seriously but believes the measure is necessary to protect health. “I’m not making this decision likely.”
Council approved the law 5-0, with council members Jason Lawhorn and Sharon Hughes absent. The meeting was closed to the public but live-streamed online, another unprecedented restriction allowed by Carney in response to the coronavirus outbreak.
“I’d rather do too much than end up doing too little,” Councilman Stu Markham said.
Discussion of banning large gatherings began over the weekend as crowds gathered at bars and in backyards to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day.
“I have heard from many residents, and they are angry and scared,” Councilman Chris Hamilton said. “They are wondering why these large gatherings are allowed to continue.”
Crowds gathering at restaurants and bars have been a growing concern nationally as officials desperately try to slow the spread of the virus, which has already sickened more than 4,000 people in the United States and killed more than 70.
Officials say social distancing is crucial to “flatten the curve” – slow the inevitable spread of the virus – so as not to overwhelm hospitals.
On Sunday, the governors of Ohio and Illinois ordered bars and restaurants shuttered. New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland and other states have since followed suit.
On Sunday, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the federal government's top infectious disease expert, said he would like to see a 14-day national shutdown imposed to prevent the virus's spread.
“I think Americans should be prepared that they are going to have to hunker down significantly more than we as a country are doing,” said Fauci, a member of the White House task force on combating the spread of coronavirus. He heads the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health.
While UD has closed the dorms and moved classes online, many students who live off-campus are still in Newark.
“The dorm closings still leaves half the students, many thousands, who live in off-campus housing who are stuck without classes but have plenty of time on their hands,” Hamilton said. “UD has no power to send them home, so Newark will have those students, most of whom can't get out of their leases, around for several more months."