At a special meeting on April 8, the City Council adopted an emergency ordinance setting “social distancing” rules for Newburyport streets and city-owned property. Violators will receive a warning and then fines.

The ordinance took effect immediately (emergency measures do not require mayoral signature), and runs through May 4. The Newburyport Board of Health was given authority to terminate it earlier. The council could also later vote to extend its duration.

As stated in its emergency preamble, the new ordinance is aimed at preventing the quick spread of the COVID-19 virus and so prevent overwhelming local health facilities, like Anna Jaques Hospital.

Without an ordinance, the only actual regulation requiring social distancing in Massachusetts is a Department of Public Health guidance that authorizes fines and possible imprisonment for gatherings exceeding 10 people “in any confined indoor or outdoor space.”

The final language of our local ordinance was a compromise reached after hours of debate and important input from City Marshal Mark Murray and Health Director Frank Giacalone.

Excerpts include:

(1) No “group of more than 10 people” shall “gather in or upon any public way or … in any park, playground, or recreation area, or on school grounds owned by the City of Newburyport.” Ten or more people may be present on public land serendipitously, if they stay more than six feet apart.

(2) “It shall be unlawful for any person to use for active recreation any playground or play equipment, or any athletic or sports equipment, or field or court, including, without limitation, a tennis court, basketball court, baseball field, or soccer field, however … passive recreation, including, without limitation, walking, hiking, biking, jogging, and running do not constitute a violation … .”

(3) “It shall be unlawful for any person to gather in a group of any size to be located within six (6) feet of [any] other person, excepting solely those persons responding to an emergency in an official capacity and in accordance with applicable law … .”

A first violation of the ordinance will result in a warning, followed by fines of $25 for the second violation, $50 for the third violation and $100 for all subsequent violations.

The 6-foot separation requirement passed narrowly, 6-5 (Zeid, Devlin, Khan, McCauley and Shand opposed). Overall, the ordinance passed 10-1 (McCauley opposed).

Those votes are behind us.

Our council does not enact ordinances symbolically. We intend any law that we pass as a body to be observed and enforced.

Our regular City Council meeting on April 13 was short. We merely confirmed some appointments and reappointments to city boards and commissions.

The next regular meeting of the council is set for April 27. The agenda and packet will be posted at https://www.cityofnewburyport.com/city-council.

Jared Eigerman is president of the Newburyport City Council.

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