We want you guys to survive and thrive. And it’s critical that
the electeds here in this country and the state
begin to listen to the people that put them there.
— Mayor Paul Creighton
The City of Atwater took a unique and unprecedented step aimed at opening up the city’s economy during a special meeting Friday afternoon that was packed with local residents and business owners.
In a unanimous vote, members of the City Council passed a resolution “affirming the city’s commitment to fundamental constitutional rights and declaring the City of Atwater a sanctuary city to all businesses.”
The vote was 4-0, with Councilmember Danny Ambriz absent from the meeting.
Right after the decision, the packed meeting chambers erupted in a standing ovation — complete with arms-over-head cheering and general jubilation as Mayor Paul Creighton closed the meeting by saying “God Bless Atwater.”
Creighton later told local reporters that city police and code enforcement will not interfere with businesses that reopen ahead of state guidelines. He added that businesses operating under state licenses will have to consider their own options.
The meeting kicked off with a prayer from local pastor Don Borgwardt that seemed in retrospect to set the tone for the majority of the meeting. The prayer stated: “Father God, we thank you for the opportunity to be here at such a great event and at a time when small businesses are being heard and voices are being raised. Father God we know in your eyes there is no thing as essential or non-essential. All people are essential. All businesses are essential. All people’s lives are essential.”
As the meeting got underway Mayor Creighton noted that while the council is practicing social distancing, he went on to say that, “You’re all adults here, and so you know how to do that. If you feel comfortable you can remain where you’re at, and if not, we have things setup outside so please be cognizant of that.”
The first resident to speak, local businessman Chris Coffelt, noted that he would appreciate if the council looked upon him as though he were Elon Musk or Walmart, “because every small business in here deserves the same equality that those people and businesses get.”
The man went on to say that as the mayor and council members took the Oath of Office, they all became beholden to the U.S. Constitution. Pointing to the 14th Amendment, he went on to draw attention to a past court case in which the courts found that the state was not able to interfere or prevent a business from establishing contracts for the sake of worker’s health. He ended by saying that Governor Gavin Newsom’s orders are unconstitutional.
Next to the podium was Merced County Supervisor Daron McDaniel. He thanked those on the council for making the “bold move” to declare the City of Atwater a sanctuary city for businesses, saying that, “It is a time like this that the folks in this room elected us to represent them, and the governor took that away from us.”
McDaniel went on to express that he felt Governor Newsom thought that local elected leaders would act irresponsibly and not make correct decisions going forward. “The public has been educated, and they know how to social distance …. If anything, more people are congregating more at the larger stores. Let’s let it disperse by opening the whole community.”
He ended by saying that all of the local small businesses pay rent, taxes, and feed their families by continuing to work in the area, and thanked Mayor Creighton and Council member Brian Raymond for taking the steps needed for local businesses to once again open their doors.
Local insurance agent Terry Solano pointed to her conversations with clients who have expressed their inability to make ends meet with everything from rent and insurance payments to keeping their staff paid and just putting food on the table for their families.
“It’s becoming a hardship, and as a small business, we can do what we need to do to keep our customers and community safe.”
Donald Covington, the president of the Old Town Atwater Association, was brought to tears as he made his way to the microphone, and had to cut his comment period short due to his emotions. He implored council members to act, saying that, “People are starving. Two family members have two small businesses, and they have small children and have no income right now.”
Atwater Chamber of Commerce president Don Borgwardt noted that the chamber endorsed the position that the council appeared to be taking. “One of the things I’m extremely proud of is that I can look around and see the representation of small businesses here, and that speaks volumes for itself,” he said. “People are tired of being quarantined and trying to make amends for feeding their families, supporting their family and they can’t do it any longer.”
Speaking as a pastor, he went on to say that, “It is time to open up the churches.”
Numerous residents throughout the meeting thanked the council members for their courage in taking the steps to declare the City of Atwater a sanctuary city for business, saying that standing together as one, the community would be able to stand against those further up the government hierarchy.
Representatives from local salons pointed out that they must pass inspections at unannounced points in time from the State of California, and as such they have always been above and beyond in the realm on sanitation, while other business owners pointed to long standing actions they have taken to always protect those who make their way into their places of businesses.
Other residents still noted that they see what the state has done as a form of “tyrannical government” and that the orders that have shut the doors of some businesses a governmental overreach, with those speaking calling the City of Atwater’s direction “historical” and something that will be “watched around the nation.”
One local business owner drew particular applause by saying that, “I’m not the guy that is waiting for a paycheck or someone to bring food into my house … I’m a fighter and that’s what we got to do here today. We have to get together here today to fight.”
How many people have been up here and touched this lectern, without it being disinfected? How many people in the overflow hall or outside
are not standing 6 feet apart, aren’t wearing a face mask,
and haven’t washed or sanitized their hands?
— Caleb Hampton, resident of Atwater
One resident in the group, Caleb Hampton, pointed out that while many residents and those in attendance insisted that all adults would be able to act responsibly and safely, he noted that he hadn’t seen that throughout the duration of the meeting.
“How many people have been up here and touched this lectern, without it being disinfected? How many people in the overflow hall or outside are not standing 6 feet apart, aren’t wearing a face mask, and haven’t washed or sanitized their hands?”
He went on to say that his concern is that the council has pressed a narrative that small businesses can enforce these types of guidelines on their own, and that residents as individuals can do these things on their own, despite the lack of evidence that he witnessed while in the room.
Hampton went on to point to a 1905 Supreme Court case in which the court found that a state has a compelling interest to protect public health and that “The liberty secured by the Constitution of the United States by every person within its jurisdiction does not import an absolute right in each person to be at all times and in all circumstances, wholly free from restraint.”
He went on to question the council, asking if the proposal was entirely symbolic or if it amounts to defying state orders.
“If the first, we are wasting time and resources, and endangering everyone who has met here,” said Hampton. “If the second, that means the City Council is assuming the state’s responsibility, so what steps will you take to protect workers, and their patrons?”
Near the end of the meeting, Mayor Paul Creighton suggested that the decision to reopen the local economy was not about the City Council.
“We just did what you guys told us to do, period,” Creighton said. “You guys put us up here. It’s very rare in today’s society that electeds do the right thing. They always do the wrong thing. So it’s time to do the right thing and listen to the people that put us here. We’re only here for a short period of time. We want you guys to survive and thrive. And it’s critical that the electeds here in this country and the state begin to listen to the people that put them there.”