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City board further limits number of customers allowed in grocery, large retail stores

Batesville officials took another step in their efforts to control crowd sizes in some of the city’s larger retailers – specifically the main grocery stores, Lowe’s, and Wal Mart – at a Thursday afternoon meeting of the Mayor and Board of Aldermen. They also reduced by half the number of customers allowed in all businesses in the incorporated limits.

The board had ordered that all stores with more than 4,000 square feet would be limited to 50 percent of its fire occupancy load with a resolution passed last week. Today, they amended that order,  further reducing the limit to 25 percent of a store’s occupancy rating.

McCloud used Piggly Wiggly as an example, saying that store has received the most attention because of the large numbers of shoppers in the store at certain times. That store has a fire occupancy load of 500 and had been limiting customers to 250 at one time the past week. That grocery store will only be allowed to have 125 customers at a time under the new rules.

McCloud said the city’s main grocery stores are working hand-in-hand with the police department to control the crowds and have each put in significant cleaning and sanitizing practices. Also included in the 25 percent of fire occupancy load category is Family Dollar, Dollar General, and others with larger buildings.

Police Chief Jimmy McCloud made the recommendations to the board. The other measure addressed the order that no more than 10 customers at a time are allowed in other retail stores. No more than five customers at a time will now be allowed in any one store at a time when the changes go into effect at 5 p.m. Friday.

Conditional use permits issued for food trucks, produce vendors, and small operations such as crawfish sellers, will also be suspended the board ruled today. Vendors who already have permits for this weekend to sell crawfish will be allowed to open (until Sunday night) because they had already made orders from their suppliers before the Shelter in Place edict was issued

Also at 5 p.m. tomorrow citizens statewide are instructed to begin following Governor Tate Reeves’ Wednesday order that requires them to Shelter in Place for the next 14 days. At the same time, all non-essential businesses should be closed until further notice.

The city board briefly went over a long list of every registered business in Batesville Thursday, but declined to make any decisions about which ones will be judged as essential and which are non-essential. The state has a list of essential businesses as a guidelines for city and county governments, but local boards may declare some of those “essential” businesses in the state’s view as “non-essential” as they see fit.

Local officials may also place restrictions on essential businesses to tailor specific situations in each county and municipality. They are only required to have at least the same criteria as the state mandate, but may also go further.

Some aldermen have argued that the new guidelines are grossly unfair to home-owned local businesses who specialize in the retailing of items that are not considered essential – clothes, jewelry, furniture, etc. – and will be closed by the order Friday afternoon while larger retailers can continue to sell those same items because they also carry essential items and are allowed to remain open.

Mayor Jerry Autrey advised the aldermen to study the list extensively tonight and be ready to make those decisions at Friday’s 10 a.m. meeting of the board. At that time, they are also expected to decide how to proceed with local factories and their workforce during the next two weeks.

Most manufacturers in Batesville have contracts to deliver products that are considered essential by the state. Some have Department of Defense contracts and are automatically exempted from closures. Panola Partnership CEO Joe Azar told the board at an earlier meeting today he has worked closely with industry leaders in the city for a week and is satisfied that most are taking major steps to keep their facilities sanitized as much as possible and are actively taking temperatures of employees.

The best outcome, Azar said, would be for all Batesville industry to check their workers for fever when they arrive for a shift, when they have meal breaks, and when they leave at the end of their time period. Some plant managers are doing that now, and others have committed to those measures when forehead scanners can be obtained.

Three industries – Parker Hannifin, Insituform, and Anderson Technologies – have submitted letters to the city board explaining why their managers believe the plants are essential businesses, but all board members aren’t satisfied they meet the standard and are scheduled to discuss those three, along with others, at the Friday meeting.

Those industries will be decided upon Friday, aldermen said.

Mayor Jerry Autrey said aldermen were to be commended for their proactive approach with local factories noting that until the board instructed Azar to bring a report of all measures being taken inside Batesville plants, and what precautions are in place to protect workers, those industries, in most cases, were not adhering to best practice recommendations.

“At least we have them making an effort to do the right things now,” Autrey said.