Lauderdale County Emergency Management Agency helps set up COVID-19 testing site.

Paula Merritt / The Meridian Star

Lauderdale County Emergency Management Agency helped set up a COVID-19 testing site Tuesday at the former Sears auto shop at Bonita Lakes Mall. Testing is planned Wednesday at the site.

As Lauderdale County prepared to shelter in place for two weeks to prevent the rapid spread of COVID-19, Meridian Mayor Percy Bland announced sweeping changes impacting small businesses, shoppers and recreation across the city Tuesday.

Under the city's shelter-in-place order, effective Wednesday, all retail shops and Bonita Lakes Mall; all city parks, playgrounds and basketball courts, including Bonita Lakes Park and Northeast Park; and all daycares, except for those needed by essential workers, are closed for two weeks. 

The restrictions do not apply to grocery stores, convenience stores, hardware stores, gas stations, agricultural supply stores, medical supply stores and stores supplying first responders and healthcare workers.

Under the city order, restaurants will remain open, but only with curbside service or delivery. Patrons may not come inside for pickup or use indoor or outdoor dining areas.

Liquor stores may take orders and payment by phone or online and are limited to curbside delivery only.

Bars, gyms, dance studios and clubs are ordered to close.

Non-essential businesses listed in the mayor's order also include barber shops, beauty salons, nail salons, spas, massage parlors and tattoo parlors. 

“We understand that this is going to cause financial hardship and pain for a lot of our small business owners and citizens,” Bland said.

The order came after concerns of the sudden surge in COVID-19 cases in Lauderdale County prompted Gov. Tate Reeves to issue a shelter-in-place order, effective 10 p.m. Tuesday.

It was the first such order in the state of Mississippi.

“It’s going to be very, very difficult to provide adequate medical care if a lot of people get COVID-19 at the same time,” Bland said. “There’s no cavalry coming from Jackson.”

The governor's order requires all non-essential businesses and non-profits to stop operations, except for activities needed to maintain the facilities, equipment, inventory, payroll and security.

Essential business operations, including some within public safety, healthcare operations, infrastructure, agriculture and other fields may remain open.

Restaurants and bars may remain open limited to drive-thru, curbside and/or delivery service.

Lauderdale County residents may leave to get medical care, food, services or supplies or to deliver to those who cannot leave their homes, to participate in individual outdoor activity and to work at essential businesses.

Travel to care for elderly or other vulnerable persons, to obtain COVID-19 testing, to or from education institutions, or travel required by law enforcement is permitted.

All public and private social and other non-essential gatherings in groups of more than 10 people where people are in close proximity must be canceled or rescheduled.

The order suspends evictions in Lauderdale County, but does not lift the obligation to pay rent or mortgages.

All places of amusement and recreation, including but not limited to amusement parks, museums, playgrounds, children's party and play facilities, parks (not including walking trails), movie theaters, bowling alleys, and social clubs shall be closed, according to the order.

Anyone outside their homes must maintain social distancing of at least six feet.

“I want to be clear – the fact that the first shelter in place is issued for Lauderdale County does not mean that they have the most number of cases and it does not mean that they are the only place in Mississippi where there are challenges, but based upon the data that is being collected at the State Department of Health ... they recommended to me that we do this,” Reeves said.

"Lauderdale County has been identified as a region that is at higher risk for transmission of COVID-19," the order states. "Individuals residing there will need to temporarily remain in their home or place of residence and certain businesses and public amenities in need to be temporarily closed to the public."

State epidemiologist Dr. Paul Byers said Lauderdale County has had a rapid increase in cases over the last 48 to 72 hours.

Mississippi COVID-19 map March 31, 2020

Mississippi Department of Health's COVID-19 report for March 31, 2020.

“This is an indication of an opportunity for us to put in place additional measures,” Byers said. “If we can interrupt transmission, we can then begin to effectively utilize this in other areas.”

Several cases have been confirmed at a nursing home in Lauderdale County, but Byers would not name the facility, citing privacy reasons.

“The individuals who are at risk for infection from that nursing home have been identified and we’ve worked with them," he said. "It’s not a larger issue outside of that nursing home and so what we’re doing is being sensitive to those residents and their privacy."

State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs said Saturday that he was concerned that the county’s number of cases almost immediately jumped from zero last week to 12 cases by Saturday.

Lauderdale County had 35 confirmed cases as of Tuesday.

Dobbs warned that the county was likely to see "marked increases" in cases over the next week or two.

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“I do think that there is a factor that they were probably not testing as rapidly and as robust as was happening in some other communities and that probably has led to some of these challenges,” Reeves said Tuesday.

Tupelo Mayor Jason Shelton criticized the governor's order on Twitter Tuesday, writing, "The businesses in Lauderdale County are simply losing customers to surrounding counties and (by the way) COVID doesn’t stop at the county line...the hodgepodge approach is baffling."

Reeves said he believed the vast majority of Lauderdale County residents would comply with the order.

“I am confident that Mississippians are smart enough, are patriotic enough, are paying attention to what we are saying,” he said.

MSDH reported 90 new cases of COVID-19 Tuesday, bringing the state's total to 937.

Clarke County has 4 cases, Kemper County has 1 case, Neshoba County has 4 cases and Newton County has 2 cases.

On Tuesday, Anderson Regional Medical Center said it was hospitalizing three patients who have tested positive for COVID-19. The patients are under strict isolation and close observation in accordance with Mississippi Department of Health (MSDH) and CDC guidelines, the hospital said.

MSDH reported four additional deaths Tuesday, for a total of 20 deaths statewide.

Of 4,454 samples tested at the MSDH Public Health Laboratory, 407 have tested positive for COVID-19, MSDH said.

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