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El Dorado city officials and department heads are calling on the community to follow directives and recommendations that have been issued to help contain the coronavirus (COVID-19) in the city and Union County.

During a specially called El Dorado City Council Finance Committee meeting Tuesday, city officials and Police Chief Kenny Hickman said they want to clarify and relay to local residents updates and information from state and national officials as the U.S. and the world continue to grapple with the spread of the virus.

Hickman said officers received calls and complaints last weekend about people gathering in local parks, funerals and memorial services and about “people not social-distancing” in Walmart Supercenter.

The police chief said he is working through a maze of state officials and agencies to keep abreast of the latest directives and recommendations regarding COVID-19.

Last week, Dr. Nate Smith, director and state health officer for the Arkansas Department of Health (ADH), in consultation with Gov. Asa Hutchinson, banned gatherings of 10 or more people in confined indoor and outdoor spaces.

Per the ADH:

• The directive does not apply to gatherings of 10 or more people in unenclosed, outdoor spaces, such as parks, trails, athletic fields and courts, parking lots, golf courses, and driving ranges where social distancing of at least 6 feet can be easily achieved.

• The directive does not apply to businesses, manufacturers, construction companies, places of worship, the Arkansas General Assembly, municipal or county governing bodies or the judiciary.

However, these entities are advised to limit person-to-person contact and maintain appropriate social distancing of at least 6 feet to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Law enforcement officers have been authorized to discharge the directive, which, if violated, can constitute a misdemeanor offense that is punishable by a sentence of up to one month in jail and a fine of $100 - $500.

Last weekend, Hickman said the El Dorado Police Department was inundated with complaints about gatherings at memorial services and funerals and shoppers not practicing social distancing at Walmart Supercenter.

Hickman said there has been some misunderstanding among residents about the state directive.

He pointed to exemptions to the places of worship component, saying that 10 or more people are permitted to attend worship services, whether in indoor or outdoor, confined spaces, as long they meet the 6-foot distance requirement.

Other events that are typically held inside churches, including weddings and funerals, are not included in the exemption.

“They’re fine as long as they’re held outdoors but funerals and memorial services may not be held indoors if there are 10 or more people,” Hickman explained.

“What are we doing as a city, as a council to control people not congregating? Are we enforcing that (directive) or are we just suggesting that?” Council Member Andre Rucks asked Tuesday.

Council Member and Finance Committee Chairman Vance Williamson referred to social media posts by local residents who are questioning the city’s response to COVID-19 and public gatherings, explaining that elected officials make laws but do not enforce laws.

“The (police chief) can answer that better than anybody,” Williamson told Rucks.

Keeping health concerns in mind for citizens and officers, Hickman said the EPD is appealing to “people’s cooperation” in following directives regarding COVID-19.

“(We’re) advising. It is a fine. It is a civil penalty that can be exacted by a court later on. It’s not a whole lot more than a traffic ticket, so we will advise groups, let them know and cite if necessary and leave it,” Hickman said.

Taking a diplomatic, informative approach on a case-by-case basis to enforce the directive helps the EPD retain available manpower for other calls, including burglaries, violent incidents and other felony offenses, the police chief said, adding that the EPD “does not have enough people in the entire police force” to respond to calls about the shoppers not practicing social distancing at Walmart.

With the coronavirus raging, the EPD has modified its operations, including taking reports of misdemeanor offenses by phone and determining if a physical response is needed for certain calls.

“What has happened is this has necessitated that we become involved in what is normally accepted freedoms for people,” Hickman said, adding later, “This is about safety. It’s not about squelching people’s rights. Safety is our top priority.”

To that end, Hickman particularly called on local ministers and funeral directors to be mindful of the state mandate regarding gatherings of 10 or more people.

The Arkansas Funeral Directors Association recommends that funeral homes conduct graveside services only and practice social distancing.

Mayor Veronica Smith-Creer said she responded to public concerns, including social media posts calling for her to “lock the city down,” with a Facebook live-stream Sunday. She said the live-stream included information that Hickman mentioned during the Finance Committee meeting.

“Those of us who are elected officials need to make sure we’re sharing the correct information. I even shared that (Union County Judge Mike Loftin) and I can’t order anything that we know our police force and (Union County Sheriff’s Office) cannot enforce,” Smith-Creer said.

“So we need to be mindful of what the police chief just said … because a lot of people are hysterical, a lot of people are a little irate and lot of people don’t understand the full picture of certain things,” she continued. “So we need to, as much as possible, as elected officials, especially on social media, help quiet those things as much as we can.”

Hickman agreed, saying the EPD is “looking at the haul” to help mitigate and prevent the spread of disease to protect public health and safety.

Print Headline: Residents urged to continue following health guidelines

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