Safe Seating

The City Council Chamber in Vermillion City Hall is usuall filled with rows of seats. That wasn't the case Tuesday night. Several chairs were set aside with the remaining chairs located six feet apart in accordance with CDC guidelines to lessen the chances of coronavirus being spread through the room.

The Vermillion City Council approved on its first reading an emergency ordinance designed to help contain the spread of coronavirus in the community.

The new regulation will, effective 9 a.m. Monday March 30 after it receives its second reading at a special meeting of the city council, restrict a host of retail and recreational activities in the city. Hit hard will be a significant part of Vermillion’s retail sector – its restaurants and bars.

The ordinance reads, in part, that effective on that date, all restaurants, food courts, coffee houses, bars, cafes and similar businesses that offer food and beverages for on-site consumption, including alcohol licensees with on-sale privileges, are closed to on-site/on-sale patrons.

The ordinance allows such businesses to stay open and provide take-out, delivery, curbside and drive-thru services.

“Any business continuing to operate in order to provide lawful off-site service should implement procedures to ensure social distancing and operation in compliance with federal and state health guidelines in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19,” the ordinance states.

Effective Monday, public pools, health clubs, spas, hair and nail salons, massage parlors, athletic facilities and theatres, including movie theatres and music and entertainment venues are “directed to close and cease operations.”

Other local business activity that is restricted under the ordinance includes vaping lounges and similar businesses that allow for on-site consumption. They must cease on-site consumption but may continue to offer products for sale to consume off-site.

Video lottery casino operations in the community also must close beginning 9 a.m. Monday. The new law will be in effect for 60 days beginning Monday. The law will expire after that period of time, but the city council may continue it if it decides it’s still needed.

The emergency ordinance does not apply to public places that offer food and beverages for off-site consumption, including grocery stores, markets, retail stores that offer food, food pantries, convenience stores, liquor stores and drug stores; health care and correctional facilities, homeless shelters, soup kitchens and similar institutions.

The new law also will not affect official meetings of the city, county, schools or state; the operations and meetings of any state, federal or local governments or their courts, schools governed by the local school board or the South Dakota Board of Regents, and the city’s parks, trails, bike paths and The Bluffs Golf Course.

Alderman Tom Sorensen cast the only vote against the ordinance.

Earlier in the meeting, he read a letter from Vicki Walker, M.D. of Vermillion, who was unable to attend the meeting.

“The current threat that we’re facing is unlike any other public health issue that has occurred during my lifetime. As our elected officials, you carry a heavy burden to protect our community. As a doctor, neighbor, friend, I thank you for taking actions now to reduce the impact that this illness will have in Vermillion,” Walker stated in her letter.

She noted that it is normal for people to develop a bit of wait and see attitude about most challenges.

“Unfortunately, that attitude in this situation has had deadly consequences across the world,” Walker’s letter states, “as we have seen in news reports. Here in Vermillion, I believe that most businesses and individuals are doing their best to be responsible, but there is a steep learning curve figuring out best practices.”

She encouraged the city, in order to protect its citizens, to coordinate efforts that will ensure that each business that remains open has a plan to adhere to expert public health recommendations to limit the spread of this infection.”

Alderman Kelsey Collier-Wise read a statement from Dr. Lana Svien. She stated that she supports Gov. Noem’s March 23 executive order to take measures to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

“Many Vermillion businesses have elected to close their shop, restaurant or business on their own in the best interest of the community they serve,” Svien states in her letter. “COVID-19 deaths are doubling every three days and rural America is not immune. Measures to protect businesses,’ restaurants’ and shops’ patrons are imperative. Additionally, measures to protect our small businesses are imperative.”

Svien’s suggestions closely matched much of the language that is included in the ordinance.

Collier-Wise also read a statement from Dr. Courtney Merkwan, who lives in Vermillion and is an emergency medical provider in Yankton who mentioned that coronavirus has a 6 percent mortality rate in people over 60 years of age and 14 percent of all who catch the illness require hospitalization.

In her statement, Merkwan mentioned CDC guidelines urging that people stay six feet away from each other and that gatherings not larger than 10 people will help “flatten the curve.”

“We’ve had several meetings with local people; we’ve had several phone conferences with the mayors of other cities and we’ve had several phone conferences with Gov. Noem,” Mayor Jack Powell said at the beginning of Tuesday’s meeting. “In all of those meetings, the intent has been to figure out what is best for our state.”

The mayor noted that there has been a lot of “patchwork thinking” going on by various leaders across South Dakota and he felt it is important for Vermillion to approve an ordinance that will works the best.

“Several cities have put forth proposed ordinances and we’ve discussed this with other city people throughout the state,” Powell said. “I think that I’d prefer that we take more of a state-wide position rather than each individual community coming up with its own (ordinance).”

The mayor stated that, for example, if Yankton imposed some requirements on businesses that Vermillion did not, that could mean people from the Yankton area traveling to Vermillion with the coronavirus to take advantage of those differences, or perhaps, while in Vermillion, become infected with the COVID--19 virus only to spread it to Yankton.

“I like that our city council is being proactive in this … I think we’re trying to take a very deliberative approach to this and I think that we’re coordinating with quite a few other communities across the state,” Powell said.

City Manager John Prescott noted that Rapid City and Huron adopted ordinances on Sunday that are very similar to what was before the Vermillion City Council at its Tuesday meeting. On Monday, Brookings and Watertown also adopted similar ordinances and on Tuesday, Yankton, like Vermillion, was taking action on a COVID-19 ordinance.

“Saving lives now will ensure future business survival, future customers, future student enrollments,” Sorensen said. “ … We can revive business, jobs, customer numbers. We need to do something now so I’m in favor of this ordinance and I move its approval.”

Sorensen’s motion didn’t receive a second because it was for a version of the ordinance that didn’t include a few minor changes that aldermen had earlier discussed adding to the measure. A later motion, made by Alderman Katherine Price that included regulations on beauty salons and massage parlors and amendments to what are allowable outdoor activities under the measure, received a second and was ultimately approved on its first reading.

Price noted that USD has had to come up with a lot of creative solutions in the past week in the way it delivers education and she believes the Vermillion community can be as equally creative in dealing with the coronavirus.

“But this is a serious situation and we need to take it very seriously,” she said. “I had a phone call today from a citizen in Vermillion who expressed that they have self-quaratined themselves because they believe that they are carrying the virus after traveling recently. They were unable to confirm with a test through Sanford Clinic.

“So, I do believe the virus is in Vermillion and the only way we can restrict its spread is through severe actions like this,” Price said.

Collier-Wise expressed appreciation for the opportunity to talk with some of Vermillion’s citizens who will be greatly affected by the ordinance.

“It’s going to be really, really tough. It’s going to be tough on them. It’s going to be tough on our economy. It’s going to be tough on people who are going to lose their jobs. It’s going to be tough on the city; there are a lot of projects that we had envisioned that are going to have to be put on the shelf for a very long time,” she said. “There are people who are going to bankrupt; there are businesses that are going to close and not reopen and I’m not going to pretend that what we’re doing is not going to do those things.”

Collier-Wise said the ordinance is “absolutely necessary to save lives.

“I believe that our business people, as sad as they are, realize that and know that they are willing to make that sacrifice to save their neighbors, because that’s the kind of community that we have,” she said.

The ordinance will go into effect after its second reading on Monday morning. Collier-Wise asked that businesses consider close voluntarily before then.

“The models that we are seeing say that we need to do it sooner rather than later,” she said.

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