Digital Democracy

Digital Democracy

City Council zoomed into a new era Tuesday by holding its first remote meeting as a measure against spreading the novel coronavirus.

by scott barker • March 25, 2020
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City Council first remote electronic meeting on Zoom (Image created with CollageFactory).

In another unprecedented event in an unprecedented time, Knoxville City Council held its first-ever remote electronic meeting on Tuesday.

Council members convened via Zoom, the increasingly ubiquitous online meeting platform, as a social distancing measure in the worldwide battle against the novel coronavirus. An executive order from Gov. Bill Lee last week waived portions of the Open Meetings Act so government bodies could hold such remote meetings. 

Knox County's coronavirus case count reaches 15 and includes some hospitalized patients.

The coronavirus continues to spread. According to the state Department of Health, Knox County had 15 cases as of 3 p.m. Tuesday. Dr. Martha Buchanan, director of the Knox County Health Department, said public health officials are attempting to trace community transmission and more than one person here has been hospitalized with COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

As usual, the Council meeting was broadcast by Community TV. Instead of video showing Council members on the dais of the City County Building’s Main Assembly Room and citizens in the audience, the broadcast showed a computer screen.

The Zoom screen was divided into nine squares, where images of Mayor Indya Kincannon and eight of the nine Council members flickered in poor lighting, an arrangement not unlike the opening credits of “The Brady Bunch” or the set of “Hollywood Squares.”

There were a few glitches — at the beginning of the meeting feedback, echoes and background noise made hearing difficult, while toward the end a dog could be heard barking in the background.

Every item on the agenda had to be voted on with a roll call vote and there was no provision for public forum, the time at the end of the meeting for citizens to address Council on any topic they wish. 

Still, Council managed to hold discussions on issues and conduct its business. “I think this went pretty well overall,” Kincannon said as the meeting drew to a close after nearly two hours. 

Business as Unusual

Council unanimously passed two measures related to the coronavirus pandemic. 

One of the measures, an emergency ordinance sponsored by Councilman Andrew Roberto, allows establishments with on- and off- premises beer licenses to sell beer to go or by delivery, as allowed by Lee’s executive order closing bars and restaurants except for delivery, pickup or drive-thru service. The ordinance will remain in effect as long as Lee’s order is in force.

“There are four businesses in South Knoxville who said they’d be able to keep a person employed as a result of this,” said Councilman Tommy Smith, who co-sponsored the ordinance.

The other measure is a nonbinding resolution offered by Councilwoman Amelia Parker asking the Kincannon administration to evaluate emergency funding options and consider tax relief  actions.

“It sends a message to the community that we as the City Council support the mayor and her administration to coordinate social services,” Parker said.

Council also took care of some routine business, which only served to underscore the novelty of the digital meeting.

In a series of four unanimous votes, Council approved refinancing $78.625 million in Knoxville Utilities Board revenue bonds. Refinancing the debt will save KUB a projected $24 million in debt service payments.

Kincannon conceded the digital meeting format isn’t ideal, but praised the city’s information systems team for putting it together on short notice. “This is suboptimal, but it’s a good-faith effort to conduct the city's business while following social distancing and following Gov. Lee’s executive order,” she said. “A week ago we would not be able to do this but now we can.”

The mayor also thanked the Health Department for the county’s Safer at Home order, which closed nonessential businesses and bans gatherings of 10 or more people. “This is an unprecedented thing,” Kincannon said, “but so is a pandemic.”

Enforcement and Enumeration

Earlier in the day, in the auditorium of the Health Department, Buchanan thanked the business community for its response to the Safer at Home order. “We know how hard it is for them to comply,” she said. “We appreciate their understanding.”

Buchanan said compliance is on the honor system at this point. “We are relying on the common sense, of the judgment and good will of the business community to close nonessential businesses,” she said. “Enforcement is a challenge. Knox County is a big place.”

Buchanan said some patients in Knox County have been hospitalized. “We know some people are being treated in hospitals because that’s where the tests come from,” she said, though she added she didn’t have a count of those patients. 

Knox and six adjacent counties accounted for 28 of the state’s 667 presumed positive cases as of Tuesday afternoon, according to the Tennessee Department of Health. Two Tennesseans have died.

“We do know our numbers will climb as we increase testing across the state,” Lee said at his daily press briefing in Nashville.

The number of cases in the state grew at a slower pace overnight, but state Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey said at Lee’s briefing that doesn’t mean the rate of infections is slowing.

Piercey said testing has expanded in recent days. Providers have tested 10,477 people in Tennessee, including 10,113 at private laboratories. (Tuesday marked the first time the state reported the number of tests conducted at private labs.)

“Lag times grow with expanded testing,” Piercey said.

Buchanan said lags in reporting times can lead to state and local health departments reporting slightly different numbers, and the Tennessee Department of Health’s coronavirus website makes the disclaimer that health departments might announce deaths before they are reported to the state.

So far, Tennessee hospitals have had the capacity to handle the patient load. Piercey said about 30 percent of the hospital beds in Tennessee and 70 percent of the ventilators critical for treating severe cases of COVID-19 are available.

Councilman Charles Thomes said he’s most concerned about a possible shortage of personal protection equipment, or PPE. “I applaud all the hospitals and healthcare workers who are making do with what they have and I hope more is on the way,” he said.

Local hospitals have voluntarily canceled nonessential procedures to save equipment and free up beds, and Lee has mandated a similar ban statewide. Lee said physicians and dentists across Tennessee have responded to his call to donate masks, gowns, gloves and other protective gear to the state for distribution to hospitals treating COVID-19 patients.

Kincannon said the police and fire departments have a sufficient supply of PPE. “We can’t have our healthcare workers getting sick or we’ll be in big trouble,” she said.