The Newark City Council approved an emergency ordinance that limits the amount of people allowed to gather on a single private property to 12 indoors and maximum of 20 people over the age of 16 outdoors.
After much debate, the vote passed 5-2 during Monday night’s council meeting.
City officials hope the new rule will help stop the spread of COVID-19 in gatherings, particularly among students at the University of Delaware. Mayor Jerry Clifton has pointed to the outbreak at the beaches in June as young people began to mingle, and outbreaks in other states and schools.
With the university dorms opening this week to less than 1,400 students and no clear idea of how many students would be living in off-campus housing, the city wanted to protect its residents health, as well as the keep UD open and running. It closed last spring when the first Delaware cases of the novel coronavirus were identified among school staff, and that hurt the city’s businesses.
The original bill only allowed groups of 10 indoors and 25 outside. Four different amendments were proposed during the meeting altering the amount of people allowed to gather.
At one point, the council settled on 15 for the number of people allowed to gather indoors but after a vote failed, that was changed to 12 when the bill was brought by up for reconsideration.
The amount of people allowed to gather was one of the most controversial talking points of the city council meeting, with nearly every council member expressing opinions on it.
“I know one street in particular with UD student renters three houses in a row. That’s three parties at the same time, with 25 people at each party that easily becomes 75 people,” said Council member Chris Hamilton. “The police of Newark said that it’s hard to count 75 people.”
Council members who supported the bill frequently cited the fact that students will be coming from all over the country, and some places aren’t as in control of the pandemic as are Newark and the state of Delaware.
“It’s not like you can unring the bell, “said council member Sharon Hughes. “Universities across the country have opened and have had catastrophic results.”
Others saw the debate as more of a civil rights issue.
“We’re really poking into people’s freedoms,” said council member Jay Bancroft. “I understand the fear. I feel like we should treat them like adults.”
Resident Maria Ruckle questioned the constitutionality of the rule.
“You can’t make a law that impacts the homeowners,” Ruckle said.
Clifton called on lawyer Max Walton to address that concern.
Walton said that in a 5-4 supreme court ruling given on May 29 in the case South Bay United Pentecostal Church v. Newsom restrictions on social gatherings were deemed constitutional during the pandemic. Since the ruling, this case has been cited in 60 different court cases.
The private dwellings bill also originally defined specific punishments for people who violated the ordinance. For the first offense, those convicted would pay a $500 fine and do 20 hours of community service. A second conviction meant a $1,000 fine and 35 hours of community service. A third meant a $1,500 fine and a criminal misdemeanor charge with no jail time.
The punishments were amended in a 5-2 decision to allow judges flexibility. The final bill officially made the first offense a range of $100-$500 fine and community service up to 20 hours, the second offense a $500-$1,000 fine with 20-32 hours of community service, and the third offense a $1,000-$1,500 fine with a criminal misdemeanor charge.
Council member Jason Lawhorn, who proposed the amendment, saw the ordinance as more of a bargaining chip.
“I feel like the penalty for the first offense is a bit harsh,” Lawhorn said. “I see the ordinance as giving the police a tool to break things up.”
The university wasted no time in warning students.
On Tuesday the Adam Cantley, dean of students, and Tim Dowling, director of Student Health Services, sent out a letter that alerted UD students to the rule.
“The City of Newark has announced temporary ordinances for those living and working in the area,” the letter said. It recapped what the rules said and reminded students that the limit of 12 inside and 20 outside included residents of the home.
“We know that limiting your in-person interactions during this time is not easy, ” the letter said.
“All of us are feeling a sense of loss for the fall semester we had envisioned. However, recent COVID-19 outbreaks at University of North Carolina, Notre Dame University, University of Kansas, Michigan State University and many others have shown that large gatherings are the single greatest risk to students’ health and safety and to our ability to fully reopen the campus.
“We need you to step up as Blue Hens and do your part.”