Responding to the COVID-19 threat, the city closed all bars and restaurants, while the county shuttered bars and placed limits on restaurant capacity.
UPDATE: This article was updated on Saturday, March 21, with the most recent number of coronavirus cases from the Tennessee Department of Health and to report a new city parking meter policy.
Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon ordered the closure of all bars, restaurants, gyms and event venues in the city for two weeks on Friday as a precaution against the spread of the coronavirus. Restaurants are allowed to continue carryout and delivery service, but dining in is no longer an option.
The city and county issued their orders on a day when more cases were confirmed in and around Knox County.
The mayor’s announcement came minutes after Dr. Martha Buchanan, director of the Knox County Health Department, announced that bars outside the city limits would be closed. Restaurants in Farragut and unincorporated Knox County can stay open with capacity restrictions.
Hours later, officials in Nashville announced the state's first death from COVID-19, though the state Department of Health did not include any death information Saturday on its novel coronavirus website. There are also discrepancies between the number of cases provided by at least two local health departments, including Knox County’s, and the state’s figures.
Kincannon acted under the authority of a state of emergency order issued last Monday. She said many restaurants and bars in Knoxville had already closed or limited capacity based on the city’s previous recommendations. “This moves from a suggestion to a mandate,” Kincannon said.
Buchanan said she decided to use health emergency powers she possesses under state law to regulate businesses in a time of crisis after the state notified her of new presumed positive cases in Knox County and a surge in positive tests in surrounding counties.
Nashville officials announced early Friday evening that a Davidson County resident had died from COVID-19, the state's first fatal case, the Tennessean reported. The 73-year-old man had underlying health conditions, officials said.
Buchanan said the state had notified Knox County of four new confirmed cases of COVID-19 on Friday. But the state has officially added only two cases to Knox County’s total since Buchanan’s announcement, bringing the county’s number of official cases to four. (One of the previously reported cases involved a person with a Knox County address who hasn’t resided in the county since the coronavirus arrived on American shores.)
Neither the state nor the county health department has responded to a request for an explanation of the discrepancy between the numbers. The state Department of Health also gave a lower number of cases in Davidson County on Friday than Nashville’s Metro Health Department released.
The official statewide total of presumed positive tests for the novel coronavirus as of 3 p.m. Saturday was 371, nearly triple the number reported on Wednesday. Four counties adjacent to Knox County — Anderson, Blount, Roane and Jefferson — each have reported one presumed positive test. Sevier County has two cases.
Though Shelby County saw a dramatic increase, with the number of presumed positive tests skyrocketing from four to 40 overnight, most of the state’s cases remain concentrated in and around Nashville. Close to one-third of the patients with presumed positive test results are between the ages of 21 and 30.
Bars will be closed throughout Knox County, until further notice. Restaurants outside the Knoxville city limits have had to reduce the number of seats they use by half, with a maximum of 100. Restaurants that also have bars must limit bar patrons to 10 percent of capacity and prohibit standing.
Buchanan said the order would allow restaurants to stay open if they choose, and that carryout and delivery service wouldn’t be affected. “We need to support these businesses through this difficult time,” she said. “Except for the bars, this isn’t an order for businesses to shut down.”
The city opted to close restaurants, bars, gyms and event venues altogether for two weeks, effective at 8 p.m. Friday. “We decided to be a little more proactive because the City of Knoxville is more densely populated and the risk of transmission is higher,” Kincannon said.
The city has designated metered parking spaces in front of restaurants to accommodate pickup orders and is relaxing meter enforcement.
Kincannon said she’s acutely aware of the economic impact mandated business closures will have on the city but decided to take the step to help slow the transmission of the coronavirus. “It’s a short-term pain that mitigates the long-term damage,” she said.