Cautious First Steps

Charlotte Tolley at Farmers Market

Cautious First Steps

As reopening begins, businesses and consumers adjust to new norms while officials offer metrics for success — or failure.

by jesse fox mayshark and scott barker • May 4, 2020


charlotte tolley, executive director of nourish knoxville, talks with a customer at the farmers' market on saturday at mary costa plaza.

In any other year during the past decade, Saturday morning would have seen crowds thronging downtown Knoxville. The first Saturday in May marks the seasonal opening of the Market Square Farmers’ Market, and the combination of golden sunshine and rapidly warming temperatures this year was tailor-made for the lively outdoor market.

Many stores and restaurants elected to sit out the first weekend of reopening.

But like everything else in this unusual spring, the day was strained and strange. The market opened with food vendors only — no arts and crafts — at a new temporary location, Mary Costa Plaza next to the Civic Auditorium and Coliseum. It required face masks for both sellers and patrons and limited families to having only one member at a time in the market area.

“It’s gone pretty well,” said Charlotte Tolley, executive director of Nourish Knoxville, which runs the market. “Most people at this point are used to what social distancing is.”

Meanwhile, Market Square itself was quiet. Although most businesses that had been closed by state and local officials during March and April’s attempts to contain the novel coronavirus had been authorized to reopen as of Friday, May 1, few had yet done so. Open parking spaces on Gay Street — almost impossible to find on a normal Saturday — were readily available.

It was the same across the county. At Turkey Creek in West Knoxville, traffic was uncharacteristically light for a Saturday afternoon and parking lots were crowded only in front of the few stores and restaurants that were open. 

In one plaza just west of the closed Regal Pinnacle movie theater, Total Wine & More saw relatively heavy traffic and Michael’s was open, but other businesses remained closed. Party City offered curbside pickup service only. 

Gavino’s Pizzeria and Restaurant and Moe’s Southwest Grill were open for carryout only, while across the parking lot, Calhoun’s and Smoky Mountain Brewery were open. Employees wore masks, hostesses were stationed outside and patrons were spread out in the dining areas, following the Knox County Health Department’s guidelines.

Down Parkside Drive at Target, shoppers packed the big-box retailer. Access was limited — shoppers had to wait in line to enter, standing on spots six feet apart marked by red tape. Next door, however, Ross and Pier 1 Imports were dark inside, their doors locked.

While businesses and patrons tried to adjust to a new social and commercial landscape, the county Health Department issued the measures it will track to judge the impact of the reopening — which will determine how quickly the county can move into future phases that would allow more activity and larger crowds.

Business, Not as Usual

On Gay Street, most storefronts were still dark over the weekend. Only Cruze Farm Ice Cream, which has remained open for takeout, and the newly reopened Bliss &Tori Mason Shoes store were welcoming customers. 

“I think people are still a little more skeptical in terms of not wanting to push things,” said Michele Hummel, executive director of the Downtown Knoxville Alliance, the business district association that represents property owners, residents and businesses.

Hummel said she expects it will be a while before downtown returns to robust activity. Even under the most optimistic scenario currently envisioned by the Health Department, no large public gatherings will be permitted before August at the earliest.

“Things are different, and I don’t know if they’ll ever get back to what they were,” Hummel said.

But she said in the meantime, downtown residents and businesses are banding together to support each other, ordering takeout food and curbside pickup and trying in particular to support struggling local merchants.

“They are trying to support the local businesses and still be more cautious about safety,” Hummel said.

The Downtown Knoxville Alliance will launch a new video and marketing campaign this week to promote ways people can support downtown businesses even when they can’t or choose not to patronize them in person.

Setting Benchmarks

Between the time stores were allowed to open early on Friday morning until closing on Sunday, Knox County added 16 new patients to its COVID-19 case count. The average daily increase over the last 14 days has been 3.4 cases. That’s less than half the 7.6 average daily increase in cases from April 1 through April 14.

"Decisions on how to move through the phases or whether to institute mid-phase adjustments will not be made based on any one number or figure.” – Charity Menefee, director of communicable and environmental disease and emergency preparedness for the Knox County Health Department

A sustained reduction in new cases over a two-week period is one of several benchmarks the Health Department will be tracking in the coming weeks to gauge the progress of the three-phase reopening — and to determine whether to loosen restrictions after at least 28 days, keep the current guidelines in place or revert back to closure for all businesses not categorized as essential.

Charity Menefee, who is the director of communicable and environmental disease and emergency preparedness for the Health Department, said on Friday that the pandemic’s local effects will be viewed in their entirety during the coming weeks.

“Decisions on how to move through the phases or whether to institute mid-phase adjustments will not be made based on any one number or figure,” Menefee said. “Decisions must be made by looking at multiple data points and trends, while incorporating public health expertise and developments in science and technology.”

In addition to new cases, the Health Department will track the amount of testing and turnaround times for results, public health workforce and capabilities, healthcare system capabilities, and the COVID-19 death rate.

According to data released on Friday, more than 2,265 Knox Countians have been tested for the novel coronavirus. The exact number is higher and hasn’t been determined, according to the Health Department, because patient address information hasn’t been reported for all tests that have negative results. The average time it takes for results to come back has dropped from nine days in mid-March to three days now. 

The Health Department’s epidemiology team — which conducts contact tracing, monitoring, data analysis and other duties related to the pandemic — now consists of 31 people, with another 50 either trained or available for training. The Health Department can draw on 166 other Knox County employees in the case of a spike in cases.

Healthcare capacity refers to the number of beds and ventilators available for COVID-19 patients. Only two Knox Countians and an unknown number of patients from outside the county were hospitalized in local facilities as of Sunday.

As of last Thursday, hospitals in Knox and 15 surrounding counties had 1,209 total beds available, 75 beds open in intensive care units and 167 ventilators ready for use. The region’s surge capacity for all hospital beds is 4,389. “The trends are looking good for our hospital capacity,” Menefee said.

The number of deaths among Knox County patients has remained low — a total of five people, and only one reported since April 8, have died from COVID-19. The death rate among those who have tested positive is 2 percent. Twenty percent of local patients over the age of 75 have died from COVID-19 complications.

According to Menefee, businesses will play a big role in whether restrictions can be lifted further in the future, even those now waiting in the wings.

“We are so grateful for those who have put together responsible plans to keep their employees and customers safe and healthy,” she said. “We are also so very grateful to the businesses who have chosen not to reopen today because they wanted to spend more time preparing.”

Making Adjustments

Over at Mary Costa Plaza, Philip Hopkins was selling free-range eggs from his Hickory Cove Orchards in Rogersville. Although he sells regularly at a market in Kingsport, Saturday was his first time vending at the Knoxville market.

“We didn’t know what to expect,” he said. “We thought the crowd would probably be kind of light because of the virus.”

At mid-morning, he said sales were going decently. But it was literally not the market he had originally signed up for.

“We had visited the downtown market a couple of times, and we liked the venue,” Hopkins said.

Tolley — wearing a face mask like all market workers — said her goal is to return to Market Square, but only when it can be done safely.

“We’re waiting to see what happens,” she said. “We certainly have every intention to return whenever it seems feasible.”

For now, the market is running from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. every Wednesday and Saturday, with the first hour designated for immunocompromised customers. The market is using distancing and safety protocols that Nourish Knoxville developed over the past six weeks at its Winter Market.

Tolley said under the distancing guidelines, the market can allow in about 125 people at a time — a far cry from the normal summer crowds of up to 10,000 over the course of the day. During busy periods on Saturday, people lined up along Howard Baker Jr. Boulevard as the market went to one-out one-in restrictions.

The result was that even when it was at capacity, it still appeared sparsely populated — which, as Tolley noted, is the goal of social distancing. She said most shoppers were respecting the new rules, but some had to be reminded.

“Some people want to treat it like the Farmers’ Market they’re used to,” Tolley said. “And right now, that market doesn’t exist.”

West Town Mall isn’t its former self, either. The mall reopened on Friday, but left the decisions on whether to open up to individual stores. Most remained closed.

On Saturday afternoon, all the anchor stores — Belk, Dillard’s and JCPenney — were darkened and shuttered. Most of the smaller stores were also closed, as were most of the kiosks through the wings of the mall. 

Social distancing in the public areas wasn’t much of an issue — at about 4:30 p.m., only a smattering of shoppers wandered the wings of mostly closed stores and 20 people dined at the mostly empty food court. Typically shopping in groups of two or three, few people wore masks or carried shopping bags indicating they were buying the goods that were available at the stores that were open.

Wearing masks and following social distancing guidelines, however, should be part of the shopping experience for the foreseeable future, according to Menefee. “We don’t really have an end point on that. I think a lot of that will depend on how we do moving forward,” she said.

Uncertainty has become a constant during the coronavirus crisis, and clarity was not apparent over the weekend. Just inside the main entrance to West Town, two stores were open for the first time in weeks. 

In California Nails, the salon’s employees wore masks and gloves as they tended their customers. Across the way, in the Verizon Wireless store, sales associates leaned over small tables where customers sat shoulder to shoulder. No one wore a mask.