The Newark City Council on Monday will vote on controversial bills that would ban seating in bars and reinstate a rule that bans gatherings of 10 or more on city streets or in private homes to help slow the spread of COVID-19.
The bills had been up for consideration last month, but Newark Mayor Jerry Clifton asked the council to delay its vote so city officials could meet with local business owners.
Removing bar tops and seats at bars doesn’t mean that bars and restaurants will have to stop serving alcoholic beverages, Clifton said.
“The bars and restaurants can still serve alcohol and can still seat people indoors, just not at bars,” Clifton said.
He expects opposition to the bar rule.
“Some restaurant owners are getting a lawyer to talk to the state attorney general.” Clifton said, “But in my honest opinion, I don’t think the AG will pursue it.”
If they sue, he said, “I’ll start talking about where exactly I’ve seen restaurants not complying to the regulations.”
Several restaurant owners and operators declined to comment or did not return calls and emails for comment.
Ryan German, owner of Caffe Gelato, has been a vocal advocate for helping restaurants weather first the shutdown in March and now ways to expand, serve more people and make more money. He said last week that he was more concerned about making sure that the city kept the rules that made the expansion process easier to navigate.
That did happen Thursday night when the city council renewed City Manager Tom Coleman’s ability to rule on requests without going through the cumbersome process.
Clifton said that the proposal to close bars comes out of concern from residents of Newark and worry about students returning to the campus for the fall. At the start of summer, the Delaware beaches had an outbreak of coronavirus traced back to large gatherings of young people without masks, many in bars or at events fueled by alcohol.
Clifton doesn’t want to see that happen in Newark.
The bill making it unlawful for gatherings of 10 or more people to gather on streets or in home started out with a higher number.
“There had been suggestions to make the outdoor gatherings up to 15 people,“ Clifton said, “but we wanted to make this as simple as possible.”
There is no way the city will be able to shut down every gathering hosting more than 10 people, the mayor said, but the rule will allow them to make an effort in order to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus.
“It’s a lot like underaged drinking,” Clifton said. “Just because we can’t stop everyone from doing it doesn’t mean we do nothing about it.”
Clifton said nobody wants COVID-19 to spread through the community, or force the University of Delaware to close, like it did in the spring. The town depends on revenue from the students and school. While UD already has said that most of its fall classes will be online, some students will be in town for classes such as nursing that require in-person work.
“If the University shuts down because Newark becomes a COVID hotspot, it’ll be worse for local business than the regulations,” Clifton said. “I think it’s small minded on the parts of the owners to be against it.”
The council meeting is set for 5:30 p.m.
While the ordinance to close down bar seating might seem harsh to local businesses that rely on students drinking at the bar, the mayor believes that some kind of compromise will be made between the city and business owners.
“What we need is a compromise that is enforceable,” Clifton said.
“Say there’s 16 bar stool capacity at the bar. We put a 50% capacity on the bars, they have to take 8 seats out. That’s verifiable,’ Clifton said. “Now they can’t lie to us about following restrictions.”
He wants to find a way to hold business accountable and be able to accurately enforce the rules.
The mayor says Newark’s decision is more democratic than the mandates put in place on the state level.
“The Newark council has to pass by a 5-vote super majority, but the governor can act by himself on these restrictions,” Clifton said. “It’s Title 20 that gives him the power to do that.”