Pandemic Preparations

Indya Kincannon

Pandemic Preparations

With Knox County’s COVID-19 count still at one, Knoxville declares an emergency, Knox County Schools close through April 3 and UT moves the rest of its semester online.

by scott barker and jesse fox mayshark • March 17, 2020

Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon declares a state of emergency during a briefing on Monday afternoon.

On a day when the Dow Jones Industrial Average took the largest point drop in its history, the City of Knoxville declared a state of emergency, Knox County Schools announced a complete closure until April 3, and the city and county closed their senior centers until further notice.

School officials and after-school programs are working to provide food to students during the closure.

It was the latest crazy day in a month that has already had a number of them, all keyed to local and global efforts to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus and the COVID-19 illness it causes.

News kept breaking right to the end of Monday afternoon, with the University of Tennessee’s announcement that all of its classes will be conducted online through the end of the spring semester. UT had previously moved its classes online just through April 3.

As of yesterday, Knox County still has only one confirmed case of COVID-19, in a person who had traveled overseas and been exposed to the coronavirus. Statewide, the number of confirmed cases rose to 52 from 39, with Sevier County registering its first positive test. The vast majority of cases so far are in Middle Tennessee, with Nashville-Davidson County reporting 25 and Williamson County reporting 18.

During a media briefing Monday afternoon, Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon announced that she was declaring a state of emergency in the city, and she issued recommended guidelines for local restaurants and bars — which for now are advisory rather than mandatory.

“At this point, it’s just strong encouragement,” Kincannon said. “That can change as the situation changes and upon the advice of the (Knox County) Health Department.”

Earlier in the day, Knox County Schools — currently closed for spring break — announced its buildings will remain shuttered at least an additional two weeks. 

In an effort to help further mitigate the spread of COVID-19, Knox County Schools will close until Friday, April 3, 2020. This includes all school-sponsored and community events,” Carly Harrington, the school system’s public affairs director, wrote in an email to parents. “Please know this is a rapidly evolving situation and we will communicate with our families as new information becomes available.”

Emergency Call

Kincannon declared the city’s first state of emergency in memory, if not ever, after a week in which Knoxville’s economy reeled and its residents hunkered down. Hotel reservations vanished, along with cultural events and business gatherings. Worried residents stocked up at supermarkets and liquor stores while avoiding restaurants and bars.  

States of emergency typically are associated with natural disasters or civil unrest, but the specter of widespread COVID-19 exposure has prompted preemptive measures. 

Tennessee state law and the city charter give the mayor sweeping authority to respond to crises, though Kincannon said she wasn’t yet invoking any of the powers at her disposal. She said Monday that the proclamation gives her the legal and budgetary flexibility to respond to an ever changing situation.

Kincannon’s action followed Nashville Mayor John Cooper’s declaration of a medical emergency and four days after Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee put the entire state under emergency orders.

“I consulted with people who run restaurants and bars and clubs, and they requested guidance. We’re not shutting anything down.” – Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon

In Nashville, Cooper ordered bars closed, restricted restaurant seating to 50 percent capacity and banned standing at restaurant bars. Kincannon suggested — but did not impose — similar measures for Knoxville restaurants. She urged restaurants to focus on carryout and delivery service.

“I consulted with people who run restaurants and bars and clubs, and they requested guidance,” Kincannon explained. “We’re not shutting anything down.”

The mayor said businesses understand the situation. She met recently with the owners of the bars involved in the St. Patrick's Day Pub Crawl in the Old City, which was scheduled for tonight but canceled by the organizers. 

State law gives mayors the authority to close businesses and take other measures to “ensure the health, safety, and welfare of the community.” Mayors’ powers under emergency declarations include entering into contracts and spending city funds without the approval of their legislative bodies. 

Another section of state law, passed in 1968 when riots and demonstrations over civil rights and the Vietnam War roiled across the nation, enables mayors to impose curfews, close bars, and prohibit the sale of alcohol and firearms. 

Kincannon isn’t considering anything quite so draconian, though she said the emergency declaration “does allow me to mandate things like shutting down businesses if the Health Department recommends that.”

She added that it’s important to strike a balance between health concerns and jobs, but acknowledged that businesses will suffer. “This is going to be a huge hit to our economy,” Kincannon said.

The stock market showed continued concern about the long-term effects of the virus on Monday, with the Dow Jones average falling 2,997 points.

Mayors and governors across the country have closed bars, reduced restaurant capacity and placed caps on gatherings, but some have gone further. In six California counties centering on San Francisco, one of the hardest hit areas in the country, more than 6.7 million people have been ordered to “shelter in place,” according to the San Francisco Chronicle. “Non-essential” gatherings and travel are banned. Gov. Phil Murphy of New Jersey activated his state’s National Guard.

In addition to calling the state of emergency, Kincannon partially activated the city’s Emergency Operations Center, primarily to help with connecting residents with social services agencies. She also closed the city’s senior centers, a move mirrored by Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs.

Seniors are especially vulnerable to COVID-19, and closing the senior centers should eliminate a possible node of infection. The city operates three locations that are open to the general public — the John T. O’Connor Senior Center, Larry Cox Senior Center and South Knoxville Community Center. A fourth location, at Northgate Terrace, serves only residents of that public housing project.

Eric Vreeland, the mayor’s deputy communications director, said the employees would still report for duty as scheduled, though some could be reassigned as the coronavirus crisis unfolds. 

The Knoxville-Knox County Community Action Committee has not closed its L.T. Ross Building, according to executive director Barbara Kelly. She said CAC is following to guidance from Dr. Martha Buchanan, director of the Knox County Health Department. “She’s the public health official and we look to her for guidance,” Kelly said.

She said CAC will make reassurance calls to seniors they serve. Meals on Wheels and CAC’s transportation service will continue regular operations.

Kincannon said she made her decisions out of caution, but not fear. “My mantra is be prepared, not scared,” she said, “so we’ve been working to be prepared, not scared.”

In a short video he posted Monday afternoon, the county mayor said he was not declaring a state of emergency because the powers it would give him aren’t yet needed.

“In our case, what a state of emergency means is that we can more easily shift resources around,” Jacobs said in the video. “If that reaches a point where we have to do that, I can call County Commission and pretty much immediately have those powers. But at this point, the Knox County Health Department, who is running point, has the resources that they need.”

Shuttered Schools and Online Classes

When Knox County Schools closed a day early for spring break last Friday, the plan at the time was to spend this week doing “deep cleaning” of all school property in preparation for students’ return next Monday.

But three days is an eternity in COVID-19 time. On Sunday, the federal Centers for Disease Control issued guidance that gatherings of more than 50 people should be avoided for the next eight weeks, although it exempted schools and businesses. Yesterday, President Donald Trump reduced that to no more than 10 people for the next 15 days.

Monday morning, Lee issued a statement recommending that schools close statewide until at least March 31. 

“We understand the tremendous burden school closure places on families,” Lee said, “and we will continue to work with both the federal government and school districts to ensure we continue essential supports like meals for students in need.”

Knox County quickly followed with its announcement, closing schools for an additional two weeks after spring break.

Also yesterday, the state Department of Education said it had received federal waivers to give schools flexibility in providing meals to lower-income students. Usually, the meals have to be served in person in a group setting. But during the prolonged closure, Tennessee schools will have the option to allow students to grab-and-go or to provide delivery of meals.

The state’s guidance says, “During times of school closure, children should continue to receive meals.”

Harrington, the school system’s public affairs director, said officials were working out details for providing meals while schools are closed. “We are working on finalizing our plans,” she said in an email Monday. She said the system expected to announce them today.

“Situations such as this one always have a disproportionate impact to the most vulnerable members of any community, and we are committed to walking alongside them in faith through the days ahead.” – Steve Diggs, executive director of Emerald Youth Foundation

Food is also a primary concern for Clayton Wood, executive director of Thrive Lonsdale, a ministry that provides after-school and summer programming for children in Lonsdale and Parkridge.

Wood said while Thrive will not be able to conduct its regular in-person programming, which serves about 200 students. But he is working with the Emerald Youth Foundation and the Great Schools Partnership, which are both also active in Lonsdale, to support children and families through the closure.

Among other things, Thrive will make weekly grocery deliveries to the families to make up for the dinner and snacks that the organization usually provides to children.

“That will limit exposure for them, we’re just going to bring stuff to them,” Wood said.

The deliveries will also include reading materials and activities to encourage some level of continued academic work. Wood is also working on instructional materials to offer online, including Bible studies.

“It’s not going to be the same exact level of programming they usually get,” he said, but he hopes it can maintain the students’ engagement. (Anyone wishing to donate food or materials can contact

At Emerald Youth, which serves around 800 children in after-school programs, Executive Director Steve Diggs said in an email, “Situations such as this one always have a disproportionate impact to the most vulnerable members of any community, and we are committed to walking alongside them in faith through the days ahead."

Diggs said Emerald Youth is currently on a reduced schedule because of spring break and is “evaluating on an individual basis which aspects of our programming can continue under the most recent direction from the CDC and in light of recent school closures.” He added, “Extra sanitation and preventative measures are being implemented at each location where our programming may continue to take place.”

Also yesterday, at the University of Tennessee, Interim President Randy Boyd announced that all classes will be held online rather than in-person through the end of the semester. Last week, the university said it would conduct online classes through April 3 (starting next week, after spring break). That means most students will not return to campus at all this semester.

“In addition, commencement ceremonies will not be held in May,” Boyd said in a statement sure to disappoint many imminent graduates. “Each campus is looking at alternative commencement options at this time.”

CORRECTION: The Community Action Committee's L.T. Ross Center is open.