Main Street Newark

Newark City Council voted to make the city's private gathering limits tighter than statewide restrictions.

Council considered six different combinations before settling on 12 people for indoor gatherings and 20 people for outdoor groupings.

They began the night considering 10 and 25, and bounced those numbers around through a series of amendments, including a full vote of 10 and 15 which failed at one point.

Councilman Chris Hamilton said council needed to be "proactive" as students return to town this week for the start of school - although mostly remote - on Monday.

"I'd rather do it in the front-end and have no regrets then wait for an outbreak, wait for a few deaths, and then say 'oh, gosh, we should do something,' after the cat is already out of the bag."

Councilman James Horning was part of the discussion which centered on University of Delaware students, although it applies to everyone in the city.

"We do welcome you to Newark. I don't want to send the wrong message. We welcome you. We don't welcome recklessness of carelessness. You can have a lot of fun within these restrictions."

Keri Edwards of the UD Student Government Association had concerns on how the rules would be enforced.

"We wanted to make sure that this doesn't become an invasion of privacy. We just want to make sure that if the police see a group of people, regardless of what their intentions or actions are, that this doesn't lead to them now having the authority to enter their house to see if there's the possibility of anything else going on or any illegal substances or things like that."

Todd Ruckle, a former Newark City Councilman, had a similar complaint, saying the new rule violates the 4th Amendment.

"You're trying to do a good thing, you're trying to prevent students from having mass gatherings, but your side effect is you are violating the property rights of the homeowner. Government has absolutely no right to come through the front door at any time unless somebody is in grave danger--there's a rape, a violent act, or something to not allow them to get a warrant."

Before Ruckle's comment, Mayor Jerry Clifton told the group illegal searches won't happen.

"The police never have that right just to go into a house without a warrant. That is something I can assure does not happen, and will not happen, with this ordinance."

Jason Lawhorn was also in favor of gathering limits, but worried about them only being so effective at schools throughout the country where there have already been outbreaks of COVID-19.

"Nearly all the colleges I've researched that have had these outbreaks had gathering limits in place when they happened. There's a whole lot of data that says they don't work. I don't think it's enough by itself. What it does, it gives our police the ability to find something and break it up."

To help protect families in the city, the ordinance exempts those 16 and younger from counting against the gathering limit. The original proposal had that age at 14.

In addition, the fine system was altered into a series of ranges that would be applicable to the host and anyone else at the gathering.

The first offense would see a fine of $100-$500, with 0-20 hours of community service, a second offense would go to $500-$1000 with 20-32 hours of community service, and a third offense would net a $1000-$1500 fine.

Originally those fines were set on the upper end of the three scales, but Lawhorn said that creates a bad image for the city.

"I don't know how that comes across if we have $20,000 in fines because someone had 20 people at their house, I don't think that comes across well."

Under Phase 2 of the state's reopening plan, Delaware's statewide private gathering limits are 250 for outdoors, and a calculation of a person per 30 square feet inside, up to 250 people. For example, an 1,800 sq. ft. living space could have 60 people in the state, but would now be limited to 12.

Newark's vote comes just days before some students are scheduled to move into the University of Delaware dorms. The university is currently projecting about 1,400 students will move into dorms, but could not give council an estimate for how many will move into off-campus housing.

Caitlin Olsen from the University of Delaware told council the school would be ready to help Newark with the rules.

"Please know that we will get that through to the students; we'll get that through to the community, and we will keep enforcing it. We already have language ready, we're ready to be in this with you and be a good partner with you, so we're looking forward to sharing [the ordinance] soon."

The vote does not affect restaurants or businesses, which continue to follow guidance under the governor's statewide reopening plan.