By Mike McCombs
Beaufort City Council will hold a meeting at noon on Monday, April 6 to consider an emergency ordinance directing residents within the city to shelter in place during the City’s COVID-19 Emergency Declaration.
“We’re trying to send a clearer message that this is serious and needs to be taken seriously,” Councilman Stephen Murray said Sunday. “The harder we work as a community, the faster it allows us to get back to business and protect a pretty large at-risk population in Beaufort County.”
Council members will participate in the meeting via the Zoom web conferencing app. The meeting will be streamed live on the City’s Facebook page and public comment can be made on Facebook.
All indications are that an ordinance is expected to pass.
Mayor Billy Keyserling said he has instructed City Manager Bill Prokop and the city attorney to make any changes to the ordinance that are needed, so long as Council is comfortable with them and they don’t compromise or weaken the message.
Keyserling said that the responses to his newsletters have been overwhelmingly positive, and this ordinance would help clear up some confusion Beaufort citizens are getting from Governor Henry McMaster’s office. McMaster has repeatedly tweaked his emergency order but has stopped short of a statewide shelter-in-place mandate.
If passed, the shelter-in-place would take effect at 1 a.m. Tuesday, April 7.
“The first level is just set to it out there and be clear,” Keyserling said. “I believe that people in the City, from my observation, people are doing a pretty good job. But if we look at hurricane evacuations where roughly 60 percent evacuate and look where we are today, 75-80 percent are cognizant of this threat, more then they were of hurricanes. If we’re at 75 or 85 percent and this can move us another 5 to 10 points, that will save lives.
“And saving lives is really the purpose of the ordinance.”
Mayor Keyserling and Murray both stressed that the ordinance is written within the boundaries of what the Governor has already done and cannot be enforced beyond what the governor has already ordered.
That means, in essence, the ordinance is simply a stronger suggestion from the City of Beaufort to stay at home unless you absolutely have to and a plea for businesses, which still may be considered essential by the Governor’s order, to consider closing.
“Unless the Governor comes on and does something different, there’s not really anything the city can say about it,” Murray said. “Government plays a role, but it’s up to the citizens.”
Businesses, like restaurants offering curbside and take-out meals, will continue to be able to do so because they are allowed to under the governor’s order.
It also means, according to Keyserling, that any enforcement by the city will likely focus on those who are not following social distancing guidelines.
“We do not plan to aggressively go after people, but we always have, 24-7, a team of police on the street. If they see anything, they’re going to stop it and ask people to break it up,” Keyserling said. “If it comes to a second time, they are prepared to write a warrant. But the last thing in the world we want to do is impose fines when people are facing hardships, and we certainly don’t want to send people to jail, the most dangerous place in the county, where people are compacted together.”
Keyserling said the goal is really for this shelter-in-place to last another 14 days, but the ordinance is written at 30 days because it’s easier to cut it off early and ask Council to come back and approve another ordinance if it needs to last longer.
“I just want to remind people that doctors can treat, but it’s going to take communities and individuals to defeat and starve the virus. With so many asymptomatic people, when they go out, they run the risk of spreading the virus or contracting it themselves,” Keyserling said. “Each individual has more power than any elected officials, including the Governor and the President of the United States, and it’s our responsibility to put it to use.”