An Order With Teeth

An Order With Teeth

Kincannon backs Safer at Home with enforcement powers in the latest in a series of escalating and sometimes conflicting measures at all levels of government.

by scott barker • April 1, 2020
Play Equipment at John Tarleton Park in Marble City. City and county officials have banned using play equipment in parks during restrictions imposed to combat the novel coronavirus.

Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon issued a directive on Tuesday that will allow city employees with enforcement and regulatory powers to compel compliance with a revised Safer at Home order to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Individuals and businesses could be cited for violating anti-coronavirus measures inside the Knoxville city limits.

Kincannon’s order uses language identical to the order issued last week by Knox County Health Department Director Martha Buchanan, but applies only inside the city limits.

The order, along like Buchanan’s and an executive order from Gov. Bill Lee, requires all nonessential businesses to close, encourages people to stay at home and prohibits gatherings of more than 10 people. But unlike the county and state orders, Knoxville’s now has an enforcement mechanism.

Kincannon said she acted because too many people have been violating the order. “The coronavirus cases have doubled in the past couple of days and too many people aren’t taking social distancing seriously,” she said in an interview late Tuesday.

Kincannon’s action is the latest in a series of orders, directives and guidelines from all levels of government in response to the novel coronavirus pandemic that have changed with the rapidly evolving situation and sometimes contradict one another.

The result is a muddle of messages from public officials from the White House in Washington, D.C., to the City County Building in Knoxville.


Beginning today, Codes Enforcement officers, Parks and Recreation employees, Knoxville Fire Department inspectors and Knoxville Police Department officers will have the authority to cite violators of the order inside the city limits.

Residents and business owners in Farragut and unincorporated Knox County remain on the honor system. Buchanan has said the Health Department will send employees to talk with business owners or others defying the county’s order in an effort to convince them to comply, but she hasn’t offered punitive measures as an option.

Knox County Commission discussed possible enforcement of the Safer at Home order during its Monday meeting. In response to a question from Commissioner Larsen Jay, Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs said there is no enforcement mechanism for the county to use. 

We're going to have to rely on businesses to self-police and comply," Jacobs said. "And it's the same with individuals. There's only so much we can do in that area."

Sheriff Tom Spangler added that his deputies didn't have enforcement authority for the order beyond responding to complaints and informing offenders of the order. "There's no enforcement to that, but we're keeping an eye on it," he said.

Lee is taking a similar approach with the rest of the state, saying Tennessee businesses and restaurants ultimately are responsible for their actions.

The city’s striking a more aggressive posture. In the news release announcing the new order, the Kincannon administration listed several recent alleged violations of the Safer at Home order.

City officials say groups of people have been found playing pickleball, tennis and baseball in city parks; a private athletic complex hosted a softball tournament; several neighborhoods have hosted food-truck parties without following social distancing requirements; and some restaurants have permitted patrons to dine at outdoor and even indoor seating areas instead of serving takeout food only.

“The last thing we want to do is to issue citations during these already challenging times, but we must do everything we can to slow the spread of COVID-19,” Kincannon said.

Muddled Messages

The orders from the city, county and state have essentially leapfrogged one another since March 20, when Buchanan, under her authority as the county’s chief health officer, closed bars and limited seating capacity in restaurants. 

Minutes after Buchanan announced her order, Kincannon invoked her emergency powers to go further and close all restaurants, bars, gyms and event venues. 

Two days later, on March 22, Lee ordered restaurants and bars closed statewide. Both orders allowed restaurants to stay open for pickup or delivery service only.

On the following day, March 23, Buchanan issued the Safer at Home order for the county.

Throughout the past month, the underlying message has remained the same — take measures that protect the health of residents and businesses alike. 

But the details of what was allowed and where have shifted in sometimes confusing ways, as overlapping jurisdictions have instituted more or less restrictive measures.

The sudden closure of nonessential businesses and many restaurants that couldn’t make it on carryout and delivery alone threw many employees out of work. Unemployment claims in the second half of March hit record highs.

Last week, an unexpected spike in suicides in Knox County and President Donald Trump’s expressed wish to begin easing anti-coronavirus measures nationwide by Easter gave Jacobs second thoughts. 

In his weekly video briefing, the libertarian-leaning county mayor cited former U.S. Sen. Bob Corker’s support for the president’s Easter goal and wondered whether Knox County’s strategy was the best approach.

Trump reversed course on Sunday, though, extending the effective guideline period to the end of April, and on Monday Lee gave the statewide order, likewise changing his tack as coronavirus cases mounted across Tennessee.

Jacobs and Buchanan have consistently said local officials should make local decisions and that people need to follow the Safer at Home guidelines to slow the spread of the coronavirus, but the tension between protecting public health and preserving the economy is palpable. 

As the public health officer for Knox County, Buchanan has broad powers under state law to make unilateral decisions during emergencies. 

Most health departments in the state are essentially satellite offices of the Tennessee Department of Health, but the health departments in Knox and five other large counties in the state operate independently. That makes Buchanan accountable to Jacobs, though the mayor has said he will defer to the Health Department director in response to the coronavirus threat.

In a statement issued Monday, Jacobs made the case for independent action by local governments, inferring that allowing businesses now closed to reopen before the end of the month is a possibility.

“I understand what the President is saying because he is looking at the big picture,” Jacobs said. “We are responsible for the local level. We need a measured response because everything varies greatly and we’re all on a sliding scale. For example, what’s good right now for Nashville, might not be right for us. And what’s good for us, might not be right for Nashville.” 

Asked if the messages had become muddled, Jacobs agreed and blamed the changing nature and uneven pattern of the pandemic’s spread, “Overall, that’s the way it is,” he said. “It affects different populations in different ways.”

Still, slowing the spread of the coronavirus is a common goal, as Kincannon, Jacobs, Buchanan and Lee all acknowledge. Kincannon said communicating as a team is important. “It behooves the community to speak with one voice,” she said.

Seeking Clarity

Speaking with one voice isn’t so easy to accomplish when  government leaders are pulled in different directions by competing interests or constituencies, according to Michele Deardorff, the Adolph S. Ochs Professor of Government and head of the political science department at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga.

That should be expected in America’s federalist system, she said. Federal, state and local authorities compete with one another and often have different goals. “Every county is dealing with a different scenario,” Deardorff said, “every state is dealing with a different scenario.”

The coronavirus crisis, she said, presents a challenge to make federalism work for the good of the public instead of ripping apart a polarized body politic.

“The difference here is the timeline is so short, the stakes so high,” Deardorff said. “We don’t often have policy choices where death is a consequence.”

A public relations professor and crisis management expert at UT Knoxville, Elizabeth Avery Foster, agreed, and said the high stakes are precisely the reason officials need to get on the same page, especially when misinformation is easily and abundantly available. “This illustrates how important it is, in a situation as unwieldy as this one, to have a coordination of messages from the White House on down.”

Foster said fiscal and health concerns aren’t mutually exclusive. Social distancing and other measures can address both, she said, but they work in tandem and need time to bear fruit. “We have to look at the big picture,” Foster said. “If we don’t adhere to the (health) guidelines, we could see the (economic) limitations go into the fall.”