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A show of support for front line staff, in possible violation of distancing rules / May 20, 2020
Town leaders in South Hill welcomed local police and other front line workers to a Town Hall recognition event on Friday — a ceremony that did not, however, recognize Gov. Ralph Northam’s orders to the public to keep gatherings to no more than 10 persons.

The assembly of upwards of 30 people, which Town Manager Kim Callis said was permissible under state rules for the conduct of municipal business, has drawn criticism from Council candidates who competed in Tuesday’s elections in South Hill, and has raised eyebrows elsewhere.

The event, in recognition of National Police Week, took place inside Council Chambers at Town Hall. According to witnesses, most of the 25 to 30 people in the room were not wearing face masks.

Gavin Honeycutt, owner of Gavin’s House of Flowers & Gifts and a candidate for Town Council, was not at the event — and he is among those who criticized the decision to gather a crowd of people in the room, in apparent disregard for social distancing rules.

Honeycutt, who also serves as chair of the Mecklenburg County School Board, said, “If I’d done that as chair of the School Board, I’d be skewered and rightfully so. As leaders, we should set the example for the public to follow. How can we expect the public to follow the law if the leaders don’t?

“We’re glad the town chose to honor our first responders and essential workers who’ve taken care of us during this pandemic,” Honeycutt added. “They deserve the recognition. But our town manager completely ignored the Governor’s orders.”

Photos from the event show employees standing shoulder to shoulder without masks or other protective face coverings — images that were soon circulating on social media.

When asked about the recognition event, Callis said he’d reviewed Northam’s policy in Executive Order 61 in advance of the Friday’s ceremony and determined that “we were in compliance. Government is not specifically mentioned in the policy,” he said.

Callis also said the fleet management employees and law enforcement officers who attended the ceremony were essential workers who’d been working together and on the job since the governor first issued a “stay-at-home” order in March to quell the spread of COVID-19.

He acknowledged that some family members of the employees honored at the ceremony were also present, but said they were “socially distanced” from people who were not in their immediate family. He noted, too, that “reasonable steps” were taken to protect the health and safety of everyone in the room, but did not specify the nature or extent of the steps.

Other meetings in South Hill have drawn crowds that exceed the Governor’s 10-person limit on public gatherings. At the monthly Town Council meeting on May 11, 17 people were in attendance. Not all wore a face mask or other protective covering.

On Tuesday, May 12, Callis was asked by The Sun why he allowed a council meeting to go forward the night before with 17 people present. He explained that he’d taken measurements inside the council chambers and determined that to maintain at least six feet of physical distance between persons, as many as 17 people could occupy the room at one time.

Throughout the pandemic, Northam has stressed the need for a six-foot buffer between people who are not members of the same family for social distancing to exist.

When pressed to explain how he accomplished social distancing in a room he previously said could only hold 17 people, Callis acknowledged there were more than 17 people inside the Council Chambers on Friday — but that the number of attendees did not exceed 50 percent of the room’s capacity, which is around 120.

“We waited until Friday for that reason [to comply with the 50 percent occupancy limit],” Callis said. He reiterated his belief that he had fully complied with the governor’s mandate since government offices are not specifically named in the policy.

According to Executive Order 61, which took effect Friday, the 50 percent occupancy limit applies to outdoor seating at restaurants, breweries, distilleries and similar food and beverage establishments (no indoor seating is allowed), churches, brick and mortar retail establishments, businesses that offer personal care and grooming services, and indoor shooting ranges.

Executive Order 61 also requires any business not expressly listed in the Order to comply with the general guidelines that apply to all businesses. These general provisions call for all businesses to:

» Limit in-person work related gatherings.

» Limit all public and private gatherings to 10 or fewer persons. The presence of 10 or more persons in a single location performing the functions of their employment is not a gathering.

» Limit occupancy of physical spaces to ensure that adequate physical or social distancing may be maintained.

» Where possible have employees and customers utilize face coverings. Where six feet of physical distance is not possible in a given business setting, employers should provide face coverings to employees.

» When in-person meetings need to occur, keep meetings as short as possible, limit the number of employees in attendance, and use physical distancing practices.

Violations of the Executive Order are a Class 1 misdemeanor, which is punishable up to 12 months in jail and carries a fine of up to $2,500.

One local resident who asked not to be identified, claiming fear of retribution, saw pictures of the event on social media wondered. That person asked why the town did not hold the ceremony outdoors, or at the amphitheater in Centennial Park where guests could have easily been spaced more than six feet apart, and why none of the people in the photos were wearing face masks.

Shep Moss, a candidate for Town Council who heads The Shops of South Hill local merchant association, said he has only praise and support for the town employees who’ve continued to work during the pandemic. At the same time, Moss said he is worried about the message that Town Hall was sending to business owners who are hurting economically because of forced business closures. “We are following orders and guidelines that the Town Manager is choosing to ignore,” he said.

Questions about the scope of Executive Order 61 as it pertains to local governments were submitted by this newspaper to the Office of the Virginia Attorney General. As of press time, the Attorney General’s Office had not responded.

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