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Newark considering emergency ordinance to limit large gatherings due to coronavirus fears

Newark Municipal Building

Newark Municipal Building

The Newark Municipal Building on South Main Street is shown in this file photo.

Newark City Council is exploring the possibility of an emergency ordinance that would allow the Newark Police Department to shut down large gatherings at bars and elsewhere in an attempt to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

Details of the possible ordinance are still being worked out, but officials are trying to prevent a repeat of Saturday, when crowds gathered at bars and in backyards to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day.

City officials have had ongoing conversations with the city’s lawyer, representatives of Gov. John Carney, the attorney general’s office and others throughout the weekend, according to Councilman Chris Hamilton.

“We’re really looking at, legally, what can we do and what emergency powers do we have,” Hamilton said.

Newark spokeswoman Jayme Gravell said there is a “strong possibility” an emergency ordinance will be voted on at the regularly scheduled council meeting on Monday night. She said officials have not yet determined how to define a large gathering.

Monday’s meeting will be closed to the public but live-streamed online as part of ongoing coronavirus-prevention efforts.

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, the ordinance would expire after 60 days unless enacted again through the normal process.

Crowds gathering at restaurants and bars has been a growing concern nationally as officials desperately try to slow the spread of the virus, which has already sickened 3,244 people in the United States, including seven in Delaware, and killed 62.

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. Maryland ordered casinos to close, and Gov. Larry Hogan banned gatherings of more than 250 people, including St. Patrick’s Day festivities at bars. New York City, New Jersey and elsewhere are considering similar measures.

"The time for persuasion and public appeals is over,” Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker said. “This is not a joke. No one is immune to this.”

His decision came hours after 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.

On Sunday night, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new guidance advising that gatherings of 50 or more people be canceled for the next eight weeks.

In Delaware, Gov. John Carney issued an executive order asking residents not to hold gatherings of more than 100 people but did not make it mandatory.

In Newark on Saturday, the growing coronavirus threat didn’t stop some University of Delaware students from hitting the bars to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, as is traditionally done here on the Saturday closest to the holiday, which is Tuesday.

Some bars took coronavirus warnings more seriously, such as Grotto Pizza, which canceled its St. Patrick’s Day event and limited the number of patrons to under 100. However, others proceeded with their events.

Lt. Andrew Rubin, a spokesman for the Newark Police Department, said The Deer Park Tavern had a decent-sized crowd, and Hamilton noted that he saw a number of house parties on Cleveland Avenue.

The day was mild compared to past St. Patrick’s Days in Newark, Rubin said, but the scene was far from the social distancing urged by health officials.

“There were people around, and there were still parties, but it was quieter than normal,” Rubin said, noting that officers did break up some private parties and make several arrests based on the city’s existing laws.

Currently, the department has no authority to enforce the 100-person limit, he added.

By Sunday afternoon, Main Street was calm. While there were a number of people out walking around, and plenty were enjoying the weather by dining on the patios at Klondike Kate’s, Caffé Gelato, Deer Park and elsewhere, the crowds were much smaller than is typical.

A few businesses, including Frutta Bowls and HoneyGrow, were closed, but most remained opened. Others were taking precautions.

Grain Craft Bar + Kitchen removed salt and pepper shakers from tables to be sanitized between each guest and handed out by request only. Taverna was offering curbside pickup for customers who don’t want to come out. Newark Natural Foods had a handwashing station set up outside the front entrance.

Still, there is a concern about crowds gathering at restaurants and bars, Hamilton said.

He added that he heard from a number of constituents who are concerned that large gatherings will further the spread of coronavirus in Newark. The city is at the epicenter of Delaware’s outbreak, with seven cases so far, all tied to UD.

While young people don’t tend to suffer severe symptoms from the coronavirus, they risk passing the disease on to more vulnerable Newarkers.

“I have heard from many residents, and they are angry and scared,” Hamilton said. “They are wondering why these large gatherings are allowed to continue.”

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. This large gathering problem, especially student parties, located right in our neighborhoods, will only continue to grow as the weather warms without serious interference and help from the state.”

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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