The Reopening Dance

Mayors press conference

The Reopening Dance

Awaiting guidance from the governor, the mayors of Knoxville, Knox County and its neighbors prepare for a still-undefined return to business.

by scott barker and jesse fox mayshark • Arpril 23, 2020


Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs addresses a news conference wednesday morning, while Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon, left, and county mayors from the region look on.

As Tennessee and Knoxville roll toward what has been billed as a phased reopening of the state’s economy next week, details about how that will happen remain scarce.

Whatever rules are put in place, the ability to enforce them will be limited.

After a pandemic shutdown period during which they have often been somewhat out of sync with each other, Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs and Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon promised Wednesday that consistent guidelines for local businesses would be forthcoming.

“We’ve got to get that out there pretty quickly, but we are working on it,” Jacobs said Wednesday morning during a joint press conference he organized with mayors from surrounding counties.

Kincannon, who attended the press conference at Volunteer Landing, said she also hoped that guidance would come soon.

“Our goal is to come up with metrics that help us determine whether it’s safe to open, when it’s safe to open, and how to open,” Kincannon said.

The two mayors said a joint task force will outline rules and timing for the reopening of a range of businesses that have been closed since Gov. Bill Lee’s “Stay at Home” order took effect April 2.

Lee has said he will not extend his order after it expires on April 30 and that businesses and facilities that have been closed will be allowed to reopen in a phased manner, with guidelines forthcoming from an Economic Recovery Group he has convened.

But the governor is allowing the six counties that have their own local health departments, including Knox County, to set their own local timetables and guidelines.

The two cities that have been hardest hit by COVID-19 have indicated they will not necessarily be following the state’s timeline. Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland has extended that city’s stay-at-home order until at least May 5. Nashville Mayor Jim Cooper has not set a date for the end of the state capital’s restrictions.

But all indications are that Knox County, where case counts remain relatively low, will move in sync with most of the state. The questions are under what guidelines and who will set them.

A task force including representatives from the city and county mayor’s offices and the county Health Department is working on guidelines that Jacobs said should be set by the end of the week. It is awaiting details of the governor’s recommendations.

“I think they’re all going to look pretty much the same,” Jacobs said. “We’ll have to see what the governor says as well and work that into it.”

A Difference in Emphasis

Starting in mid-March, when the pandemic commanded center stage in Knoxville life, Jacobs and Kincannon have often sounded different notes in their approach to the novel coronavirus. Kincannon has tended to emphasize health risks and recommendations from federal and local health officials, while Jacobs has expressed ongoing frustration and concern with the economic effects of shutting down commerce. 

Kincannon declared a state of emergency early on, a step Jacobs never took because he said he didn’t need the budgetary powers it would give him. The city also closed gyms and dine-in service at restaurants before the county did, leading to a behind-closed-doors disagreement between the two mayors over whether the city had the authority to do so.

Kincannon and Jacobs have appeared together on a number of occasions, usually at the county Health Department, and they have also held separate press conferences and issued separate statements throughout the pandemic. Although aides to the two say they communicate frequently, they have not always kept each other apprised of their intentions or actions. Jacobs did not let Kincannon know last week before he issued his own set of proposed guidelines for reopening businesses.

The county’s “Safer at Home” order has expired, leaving only Lee’s order in place outside city limits, while Kincannon has continued to renew the city’s own “Safer at Home” order — identical to the one the county originally enacted — each week. She has not yet said whether she will renew it next week, which would push its restrictions past Lee’s April 30 expiration.

Kincannon has been working on a separate set of recommended reopening guidelines for the state’s Big 4 cities with Strickland, Cooper and Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke. 

The potential for confusion seems high, given that the majority of businesses in Knox County are within Knoxville city limits. As of Tuesday, when asked what Jacobs was doing to coordinate reopening plans with the city, spokesman Mike Donila would say only, “The two mayors talk.”

"It’s a gradual, progressive situation that we’re in, and we’re going to be monitoring how many cases we have and how our gradual opening is affecting those cases." – Sevier County Mayor Larry Waters

In response to a question at Tuesday evening’s City Council meeting, Kincannon said she had been informed of Jacobs’ planned Wednesday event with other county mayors but she wasn’t sure whether she would be able to attend.

But in a show of unity, she was there Wednesday morning at the news conference, and Jacobs invited her to speak first. 

“I am very committed to protecting the public health of the people of the City of Knoxville and also having a phased reopening,” said Kincannon, who was the only one of the officials at the news conference to wear a face mask. “We are studying how to proceed in a phased manner, in a carefully managed manner.”

Jacobs, not surprisingly, emphasized the importance of restarting the local economy. He praised Lee’s decision to lift the statewide order next week.

“We understand that there will still be restrictions going forward, but we believe that this is a great first step in getting our economy back online and getting the people of Tennessee back to work,” he said.

Masks in the Mountains

Lee has said he plans to reopen most state parks this Friday and some businesses may be able to reopen as soon as next Monday. But the state has yet to announce which businesses deemed nonessential during the shutdown will be allowed to reopen first or what guidelines beyond basic social distancing will be required.

Lee’s plan will apply only to the 89 counties with health departments that are essentially satellite offices of the Tennessee Department of Health. That includes all eight counties that border Knox County. Though Knox County has the autonomy to set its own schedule, Jacobs has said he wants to relaunch at the same time.

“It’s really up to all of us — businesses, citizens, churches, communities — whether or not we’re going to open slowly in a stepwise fashion and stay open." – Dr. Martha Buchanan, director of the Knox County Health Department

At Wednesday’s press conference with his counterparts from Blount, Loudon, Roane, Anderson, Union, Jefferson and Sevier counties, Jacobs emphasized the interdependence of the regional economy.

“Our counties are connected in myriad ways,” Jacobs said. “Some East Tennesseans work in one county and live in another. We cross county lines to go out to eat, to shop, to experience the great outdoors, to visit our friends and relatives, and to take vacations.”

The other county mayors — all, like Jacobs, Republicans — spoke briefly and endorsed Lee’s plan to lift his order. Roane County Executive Ron Woody said one key to moving forward will be mutual respect, including among people who see different levels of threat in the coronavirus.

“Whether you wear a mask or don’t wear a mask, whether you’re social distanced or not, let’s try to respect each other,” he said. 

Sevier County Mayor Larry Waters talked about the importance to his county’s tourism economy of businesses taking appropriate precautions for employees and patrons alike.

“It’s a gradual, progressive situation that we’re in, and we’re going to be monitoring how many cases we have and how our gradual opening is affecting those cases,” said Waters, who noted Sevier County had just five active cases of yesterday.

He said hotel and motel owners are planning to have staff wear masks, and restaurants and stores are talking about limiting the number of people allowed in at any time.

“We are going to start opening May 1, but it won’t be just everything open at once,” Waters said. 

Watching for a Spike

Lee has emphasized that when businesses reopen, it won’t be business as usual. With no vaccine available, social distancing rules such as limits on crowds and guidelines like wearing masks and maintaining at least 6 feet of distance between people will remain in place.  

How those restrictions will be applied to businesses hasn’t been announced yet. And whether consumers will adhere to the regulations or stay home won’t be known until businesses actually open their doors.

So far, Knox County has largely relied on the honor system for compliance among individuals and businesses. On Wednesday, Jacobs emphasized the importance of personal responsibility among employers, employees and patrons to respect whatever rules are put in place.

“That is a huge part of it,” Jacobs said. “The great thing is, we live in an area where people take that seriously. I think that’s a large part of the reason we’ve been able to avoid a huge brunt of this issue.”

Talking to City Council on Tuesday night, Buchanan sounded similar notes of compliance by encouragement rather than penalty.

“If we give businesses clear guidance, they will follow it,” Buchanan said. “Nobody wants to close down again. And we need to give clear guidance to the citizens and give them some responsibility for maintaining what level of open we have.”

The city has been operating under its own Safer at Home order since April 1. While emphasizing education and persuasion to ensure compliance, Kincannon has used the possibility of issuing $50 citations for violations. If she doesn’t extend the city’s order, that authority will vanish. The absence of the enforcement stick will leave the carrot of voluntary compliance as the only option.

Kincannon has been more cautious than Jacobs about lifting restrictions. However, she said the slowing rates of infection and other improving epidemiological measurements are encouraging signs. “I do believe we need to be data-driven, not date-driven, but so far, it’s looking pretty good,” she said.

Nationally, public health officials have warned that Tennessee and other states reopening their economies now face the prospect of unleashing a wave of new infections. Buchanan has acknowledged that the increased interaction that a return to business will bring will drive up the number of infections.

Kincannon said officials must remain vigilant to keep from sliding back into a shutdown. “As we reopen, we want to monitor the cases so if we have outbreaks, they will be as small as possible,” she said.

Whether a spike in new infections would be enough to trigger another shutdown can’t be predicted in advance, Buchanan said. The Health Department doesn’t have a single metric, she said, that will determine whether businesses stay open or shut down if hotspots flare up. 

Officials will look at infection rates, hospitalization rates, new fatalities and other measures. The key to tamping down infections and keeping businesses open, according to Buchanan, is sticking to the guidelines — practicing social distancing and good hygiene.

“It’s really up to all of us — businesses, citizens, churches, communities — whether or not we’re going to open slowly in a stepwise fashion and stay open.” 

Knox County’s infection rate has been relatively low, officials point out. Buchanan has credited the public’s adherence to social distancing guidelines as a major factor in the medical community’s ability to manage COVID-19. The risk of igniting a surge of new infections is the primary reason personal restrictions will remain in place and that business reopenings will come in phases.

“It’s going to be gradual,” Kincannon said of the reboot. “My hope is the plan will be something I can be comfortable with and we can open businesses and still keep people safe.”