Restaurant Restrictions

Restaurant Restrictions

Lee orders all restaurants and bars in Tennessee to close or offer only carryout or delivery service, and limits public gatherings to a maximum of 10 people.

by scott barker • March 23, 2020
Cruze Farm Ice Cream server Melynda Young.

With the number of presumed positive coronavirus cases soaring statewide, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee on Sunday ordered a temporary end to dining in restaurants, drinking in bars and otherwise gathering in groups larger than 10.

Gov. Bill Lee says the novel coronavirus presents an economic emergency as well as a public health crisis.

Lee’s executive order followed similar directives issued Friday by Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon and Knox County Health Department Director Dr. Martha Buchanan.

At least through 1:01 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time on April 6, bars and restaurants throughout Tennessee will be able to provide food and drink by carryout or delivery only, with new rules being instituted for alcohol sales. 

On Saturday, downtown Knoxville restaurants were complying with Kincannon’s closure order, which also applies to gyms and public event venues. Most restaurants had closed, though some continued carryout and delivery service. Alone or in groups of two or three, pedestrians scuttled in random gusts down sidewalks lined with empty patios and darkened doorways.

At Cruze Farm Ice Cream on South Gay Street, Melynda Young sold cones to go from a table in the doorway while wearing a mask. Made of the dairy’s signature red-and-white gingham, the mask was more fashionable than protective.

Young said sales weren’t bad, considering the social distancing measures people are taking and the cool, damp weather. “It’s been pretty steady, actually. There’s not much open down here,” she said. “It’s pretty chilly, but I like ice cream when it’s chilly. The ice cream doesn’t melt as quickly.”

Across the street, inside the locked glass doors of the Downtown Grill & Brewery, a whiteboard sign normally on the sidewalk announcing daily specials had been turned into a darkly humorous scoreboard: Coronavirus 1, Brewpub 0.

The city, county and state orders are measures aimed at slowing the spread of the novel coronavirus and the sometimes-deadly disease it causes, COVID-19. 

On Sunday, the Tennessee Department of Health reported 505 cases statewide and five cases in Knox County, up from four on Saturday. Six of the eight counties surrounding Knox County have at least one case, with Union and Grainger counties being the exceptions.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has created both an economic and a health crisis and our response must continue to address both aspects,” Lee said in a statement on Sunday. “Our goal is to keep the public, especially vulnerable populations, safe while doing everything possible to keep Tennesseans in a financially stable position.”

Emergency Orders

Lee’s order essentially mirrors the one Kincannon issued for Knoxville on Friday and supersedes Buchanan’s less restrictive directive.

Kincannon ordered all bars, restaurants, gyms and event venues to close, though restaurants are allowed to continue carryout, drive-thru or delivery service. Buchanan closed bars but allowed restaurants to continue dine-in service with capacity restrictions.

Lee’s order allows carryout, drive-thru and delivery service only, but will also suspend certain laws to permit alcohol sales to continue. 

Patrons ordering food can also order beer, wine or cocktails from licensed establishments for pickup or delivery. Beverages must be sold in containers with secure lids, and open container laws still apply. Delivery drivers must be 21 years old to transport alcoholic beverages to residences.

The governor also encouraged businesses to enact policies that take additional steps to assist vulnerable populations, including measures such as exclusive shopping hours.

Kincannon acted under the authority of a state-of-emergency order issued on March 16. 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 at a news conference on Friday.

The city has designated metered parking spaces in front of restaurants to accommodate pickup orders and is relaxing meter enforcement. 

In a statement issued on Friday, the Knoxville Police Department said it would be responsible for enforcing the order. “KPD officers will act with courtesy, compassion and professionalism in ensuring compliance with the Executive Order, while businesses are asked to act responsibly and respectfully in fulfilling their role of allowing for social distancing and halting communal spread,” the statement read.

Kincannon said she consulted with former Gov. and former Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam about the closure order. “I think Mayor Kincannon is wise to continue to take steps to lessen the impact of this virus,” Haslam said in a statement included in a city news release on the decision. “While some of these efforts may be painful in the short term, we will all benefit in the long run from staying home and doing our part.”

Buchanan said on Friday 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. Cases have been recorded in six counties surrounding Knox — Anderson, Roane, Loudon, Blount, Sevier and Jefferson.

Buchanan said coming to the conclusion that imposing restrictions on businesses and, by extension, their customers wasn’t easy. “Part of the reason this was such a difficult decision is that we realize the impact this will have on the families of Knox County,” she said.

Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs, who appeared with Buchanan at her Friday news conference, acknowledged that the coronavirus precautions are forcing businesses to close and workers to lose their jobs. “I think it’s important for us to come together,” he said. “We’re going to have to take care of each other.”

Carrying On

Kincannon said that she, too, is 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.

After the back-to-back press conferences held by Buchanan and Kincannon on Friday afternoon, Martha Boggs was shuttling back and forth between her Gay Street restaurants, The Bistro at the Bijou and Dazzo’s Pizzaria. 

“I’m still going to do take-out as long as I have inventory,” she promised as she stood outside Dazzo’s. 

Boggs said she’s not staying open because of the revenues but to keep her employees on the job. “They’re hard-working people, and I want to keep money in their pockets and food in their stomachs,” she said.

“I’ve been through a lot of hard times and I'm ready for a rainy day,” Boggs continued. “It’s pouring down right now, but we’ll get through it.”

Fitness centers can be scenes for socializing as well as places for working out, so closing them removes a place where people congregate. Jim Dickson, president of the YMCA of East Tennessee, said in a press release from the city that closing gyms is a “smart step” toward containing the spread of the novel coronavirus. 

“The YMCA will continue to provide emergency childcare for our current families, medical staff, first responders and work with other community agencies to efficiently serve our community through this crisis," Dickson said.

Mike Odom, president and CEO of the Knoxville Chamber, said the business association has assembled resources for business owners at its website. The Chamber also plans to survey its membership to get qualitative data on how the coronavirus is affecting local businesses.

Odom said businesses might have to look at new, more dynamic business models to get through the next few months. The Chamber also is trying to match laid-off workers with jobs that are still available.

Odom also suggested a way for anyone who patronizes restaurants to help service industry workers. “Overtip,” he said. “I’m a washed-up bartender and overtipping is a great way to help.”

Kincannon predicted that more change is in the offing. “This is a very fluid situation and we’re responding as events unfold,” she said. 

Echoing Jacobs’ call for residents to support one another, Kincannon advised residents to “practice social distancing, but also be there for your neighbors.”