At its meeting on Tuesday night, the Auburn City Council approved an extension of its state of local emergency declaration through early October, as the area continues to battle the spread of Covid-19 in the community.
The resolution to extend the state of local emergency through Oct. 7 passed on a 6-3 vote, with Councilmen Tommy Dawson, Jay Hovey and Brett Smith voting against the measure. Another measure to peg the resolution's expiration date to Oct. 2 failed on a 5-4 vote. The Council is expected to consider another extension of the order during its Committee of the Whole meeting on Oct. 6.
Officials at both East Alabama Medical Center and Auburn University asked that the order be extended, said Auburn Mayor Ron Anders, even though both institutions reported positive trends. After reporting more than 570 new self-reported positive cases in each the previous two weeks, Auburn University released data showing only 109 new cases for the week ending Sept. 13. Hospitalizations at EAMC have also leveled off after doubling over the last week, with 26 patients currently hospitalized at EAMC and EAMC-Lanier as of Tuesday.
"I have spent time talking with leadership from the hospital as well as the university to gauge where do they think we were in regards to our current order and what our order is addressing," said Anders. "Both of those entities that I talked to, Dr. Fred Kam and Mr. Steve Pelham, both strongly encouraged us to continue to extend this order.
"As Dr. Kam said today, these numbers show one thing, and that's what we are doing is working. It's tempting, obviously, to rush back into business as normal, and as bad as I would personally like to see that happen on behalf of those that are impacted, now is the time not to do that. We must continue to stay the course just for a little while longer."
The most significant measure included in the state of local emergency order is that prohibition of walk-up bar service indoors at restaurants and bars in the city. In effect, the order requires a patron to be seated to be served alcohol. Walk-up bar service is permitted outdoors.
The resolution, which essentially reinforces the restrictions found in the state's Safer at Home order, also directs the Auburn Police Division to issue citations as high as $500 to those institutions or individuals not in compliance.
Since the order when into effect on Aug. 28, the city has issued 14 total citations — five to businesses and nine last weekend to those hosting house parties, according to City Manager Jim Buston.
Hovey acknowledged the legitimate concerns of those supporting the extension, but voiced his reasons for voting against the measure.
"We're having to police this all over, not just downtown, and so I just hate to see someone whose livelihood depends on a normal course of business be completely shut down by some actions we take," he said. ""We're pushing (students) off campus out of town or around town. Just because they're not downtown doesn't mean they're (not) congregating, and I believe we've even had some social distancing citations issued to house parties around town. In some very informal conversations with public safety, they're still seeing students congregate.
"Obviously, we can't legislate morality, we can't legislate common sense, but we can legislate someone out of business, and I just don't think that this is going to be the magic wand that keeps these students from congregating."
After approving the extension of the state of local emergency, the Council passed a resolution that authorizes an entertainment district downtown for Auburn's first two football games — a home tilt against Kentucky on Sept. 26 and an away matchup against Georgia on Oct. 3.
Dawson was the only Council member to vote against the measure, citing the enforcement burden it places on the Auburn Police Division as his reason for opposing the entertainment district, as well as confusion that the two measures could create for officers.
Downtown establishments can set up a temporary outside bar, if possible, to serve customers, who would be free to carry an open container downtown during entertainment district hours. Patrons would still need to be seated to be served indoors and would not be allowed to walk around with an alcoholic drink indoors or take it outside themselves.
"You wouldn't be able to order a drink at a bar and then take it off premise because that's violating the other rule," said Assistant City Manager Megan Crouch.
"This is something we're new to, we're trying to feel out way through," said Buston, who added that downtown merchants requested the entertainment districts as a way to increase sales. "We're trying to be as accommodating as we can for our local businesses while at the same time being cognizant of what we're being asked to do by the University and the health care providers. It's a compromise."