A Tide of Uncertainty

Tennessee Theatre sign

A Tide of Uncertainty

As closures mount and grocery store shelves are depleted, Knoxville businesses take steps to address coronavirus concerns.

by scott barker and jesse fox mayshark • March 16, 2020


The marquee of the tennessee theatre announces a canceled concert. The venue is closed until April 7.

Editor's Note: We are making all of our coverage of the coronavirus pandemic free to read and share. You can find links to other stories at the bottom of this article.

At Fieldhouse Social in University Commons on Saturday afternoon, about 20 people drank and ate in small groups interspersed throughout the cavernous sports bar. 

Suddenly there's no sports for the sports bars and no concerts for the theaters.

The Southeastern Conference men’s basketball semifinals normally would bring a big crowd to the bar, but the SEC, like other college sports conferences, cancelled this year’s tournament because of the coronavirus. Pro sports leagues last week either suspended or cancelled play. There will be no March Madness this year.

Fieldhouse Social is one of many businesses in Knoxville and Knox County affected by steps taken locally and across the country to stem the spread of COVID-19. “Today, without the SEC championship, you’re obviously seeing it, but being a sports bar, it’s to be expected,” manager Rodney Lee said.

The sports world virtually shut down overnight last week, and people began heeding advice to avoid crowds and limit contact with others. 

A brand new 10- by 16-foot LED screen with four panels, as well as 16 other televisions scattered throughout Fieldhouse Social, showed mostly recasts of previously held events — a golf tournament from last year, the 2019 Iron Bowl between Alabama and Auburn, the 2006 Big East Conference basketball tournament championship game.

It was a weekend of anxiety and uncertainty in Knoxville and across the country, as Americans tried to weigh the risks of the spreading coronavirus and the most effective responses to it.

Social media flooded with photos of grocery store shelves depleted of necessities — bread, milk and of course toilet paper — accompanied by a mixture of alarm, mockery and bewilderment. 

In Tennessee, members of the media and the general public became accustomed to waiting for updates from the Tennessee Department of Health, posted daily at 3 p.m. EDT/2 p.m. CDT. As of Sunday, the state reported a total of 39 cases, up from 26 on Friday, spread across nine counties.

Knox County still has only one confirmed case, first reported last Thursday, in a person who had contracted the coronavirus abroad. There is so far no known community transmission in the county, though state officials have confirmed it in Middle Tennessee, where most of the state’s cases so far are concentrated.

Restaurants and Retail

Even without local transmission, Knoxville businesses of all kinds started feeling the effects of the efforts to contain the virus and the disease it causes, COVID-19. 

Among the businesses most vulnerable to a drop in mass socializing are restaurants and bars. At Sapphire, the downtown cocktail bar and nightspot, owner Aaron Thompson posted on social media an assurance to customers that the staff is taking all the precautions it can to keep everybody safe.

“We are closely monitoring daily updates and recommendations from the CDC and World Health Organization,” Thompson wrote. “All bartenders will be wearing gloves while working/preparing drinks. On that note, we’ve reinforced the training of our entire staff in thorough and frequent hand-washing – fronts, backs, wrists, between fingers – with soap and water for at least twenty seconds each time.”

Other precautions include extra-thorough cleaning of all surfaces before, during and after open hours. In an interview, Thompson said businesses like his rely on the physical presence of customers. “It’s not like we can deliver you a vodka and soda,” he said.

But he acknowledged there is a fine line for businesses to walk in assuring customers’ safety and not encouraging any risky behavior.

“Obviously if you’re sick, you should stay in,” he said. “If you even think you’re sick, you should stay in.”

Another downtown business that relies on walk-in customers, Union Ave Books, posted a notice to customers that it would be happy to ship books to them at no cost “until COVID-19 cools it.” 

We will run books to your car in front of the store or deliver to your house if possible,” the notice said.

Union Ave owner Flossie McNabb said she is reducing store hours by two hours starting today, closing at 6 p.m. instead of 8 p.m., though she acknowledged that in turn would have an impact on employees.

“We really hate to cut back hours because of our part-time staff,” she said.


The tourism and travel industry has been hard-hit as well. Kim Bumpas, president of Visit Knoxville, said event cancellations came in a flurry at the end of last week. Some have rescheduled and groups haven’t changed plans beyond April 15, but March will be a bust for local event venues, hotels and other businesses reliant on travel to Knoxville. 

“We’ve had five groups that had to ‘hard cancel’ in March, but eight have been able to change dates,” she said. “They're concerned for their safety, but they’ll be back next year.”

With travelers across the country canceling plans, the News Sentinel reported on Saturday that the Hilton Knoxville downtown had laid off most of its staff so that they can apply for unemployment benefits until business picks back up.

A spokeswoman for McKibbon Hospitality, which operates six hotels in the Cedar Bluff and Turkey Creek areas, emphasized that coronavirus is affecting the hospitality industry on a global scale. 

“Our focus is on the safety of guests and associates as we navigate through this unprecedented situation,” said Lauren Bowles, McKibbon’s vice president of communications. “Our hotels are taking preventive measures to control the spread of the virus, including everything from hand-washing hygiene and cleaning product specifications to guest room and common area cleaning procedures.”

Bumpas said everyone across the hospitality industry is concerned. “We bottomed out for the month of March,” she said. “The hospitality industry will snap back — it’s just a matter of how quickly.”

Travel bans by institutions such as the University of Tennessee and Oak Ridge National Laboratory, as well as private companies cutting back on business travel, are having an effect as well. 

Major airlines have cut domestic travel capacity, but so far the carriers serving McGhee-Tyson Airport haven’t suspended routes in and out of Knoxville. “We have not announced changes to Knoxville’s flight schedule,” Samuel Peraza, a spokesman for Delta Airlines, wrote in an email responding to a query on Friday.

Airlines also have yet to report their passenger numbers for February, when travelers first began cutting back, to airport officials, according to Becky Huckaby, vice president for public relations for the Greater Knoxville Airport Authority. Statistics for March won’t be available until next month.

Arts and Culture

Local arts organizations and venues have already taken a direct hit, with the widespread cancellations of events like the Big Ears Music Festival and the postponement of touring shows.

Both the Tennessee and Bijou theaters announced short-term closures over the weekend, the Bijou through March 31 and the Tennessee until April 7. The Knoxville Museum of Art is closed "until further notice" starting today, and all events and programs there through April 1 have been canceled or postponed.

Lisa Zenni, executive director of the Arts & Culture Alliance of Greater Knoxville, said on Sunday that she has been in touch with many of the organizations under her coalition’s umbrella, and they are all trying to figure out their best paths forward.

“I think everybody is bending over backwards to help and be accommodating to everybody else,” she said. For some of her members it means potentially cancelling events booked in venues that are also part of the alliance.

The mass closures and cancellations are hitting right at the start of the spring arts season, one of the busiest times of year on the cultural calendar. While March has already been basically written off, organizations with events planned for April — like the Knoxville Opera’s Rossini Festival and the Dogwood Arts Festival — are still wrestling with what to do.

Zenni said wherever possible, she is encouraging organizations to postpone events rather than cancel them outright, although finding substitute dates in the future will be complicated.

She said she thinks that whenever the current period of isolation, voluntary or otherwise, comes to an end, cultural organizations will see a strong rebound.

“The one thing I think people will be most hungry for when this quarantine mentality is able to life is community gathering,” Zenni said. “I think people are going to have blockbuster attendance, because people need the things that we provide. And you can’t get it on Netflix.”

In the meantime, Thompson said the cultural slowdown will directly affect downtown bars and restaurants like Sapphire, which rely on pre- and post-event crowds. But he was confident about his business surviving whatever comes.

“I’m definitely worried about it,” Thompson said. “On the other hand, in 15 years of business, we’ve gone through so many ups and downs. We know how to operate in lean times.”

For the most part, Lee, the manager at Fieldhouse Social, shared Thompson’s concerns and his optimism. Traffic at the sports bar usually slows down somewhat during UT’s spring break anyway, he said, but he doesn’t know yet how the advent of COVID-19 and the sporting world’s hiatus will affect his business after that.

“I think that we’re too early to say,” Lee said. “We’re in it for the long run.”


"COVID-19 Spreads to East Tennessee" — March 11, 2020
"COVID-19 Cancellations Accelerate" — March 12, 2020
"Knox County Confirms First Case of COVID-19" — March 13, 2020