Pushing the Timeline

Knox County Commission

Pushing the Timeline

Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs steps up the pressure on his own Health Department to accelerate the reopening plan.

by jesse fox mayshark • may 19, 2020


Knox county commissioners met remotely for their monthly work session on monday.

Since the coronavirus pandemic seized control of the local and global landscape in mid-March, Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs has walked a philosophical line.

The Health Department says data will drive its decisions, but pressure is mounting to relax restrictions.

On one hand, as a committed libertarian, he has frequently expressed misgivings about the government response to the outbreak, lamenting its economic impact and raising concerns about the state’s use of cell phone location data in tracking whether Tennesseans were sufficiently limiting their travel.

On the other hand, as mayor he oversees the Knox County Health Department, which is charged with setting public policy in responding to the pandemic. To date, Jacobs has tended to defer to health officials while also making clear his discomfort with what he sees as excessive government action. 

Monday, he issued his strongest statement yet in favor of lifting remaining restrictions on business operations and public gatherings. In a letter to the Health Department-led task force that set the guidelines for the county’s phased reopening, which began May 1, Jacobs urged the group to accelerate the timeline.

“I understand the desire to exercise extreme caution before making changes, but available information indicates it is safe to further loosen restrictions just as Governor Lee and the State Health Department are doing in 89 other Tennessee counties,” Jacobs wrote, referring to Gov. Bill Lee’s announcement last Friday that the state would lift many restrictions on May 22.

Among other things, the state will allow restaurants to return to operating at full capacity and will allow “large attractions” like amusement parks, racetracks and theaters to reopen, with an emphasis on physical distancing and hygiene.

Knox County is one of six Tennessee counties with its own health department, and Lee has allowed those counties to set their own schedules for reopening. Under the county’s plan announced at the end of April, Phase One began May 1 and is supposed to last for at least 28 days. Its restrictions include 50 percent capacity limits for restaurants and retail outlets, and limits on gatherings of more than 10 people.

After Lee made his announcement Friday, Jacobs issued a statement saying, “I see no reason why Knox County can’t follow suit.” His letter Monday went farther, urging the task force “to follow Governor Lee’s lead and begin taking steps to end our local shut down.”

Speaking to Knox County commissioners via the Zoom video platform during their monthly work session Monday evening, Jacobs made clear that he was talking about lifting at least some of those restrictions by the end of this week.

“My suggestion is to move the date that we’re looking at up to the 22nd as opposed to keeping restaurants where they’re at now, at half capacity,” Jacobs said. He said that maintaining the restrictions would put Knox County businesses at a disadvantage to those in surrounding counties, which are under the state’s schedule.

Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon has been more cautious than Jacobs about lifting restrictions. Although the city is represented on the Health Department’s task force, under Lee’s orders the city government has no direct jurisdiction over the pace of local reopening.

In an emailed statement Monday night, Kincannon made clear that she thinks the county should stick to its original timeline.

We should stick with the plan that is working,” she said. “If the favorable trends continue, I anticipate being able to move to Phase Two on May 29, after the 28-day minimum for Phase One has ended.”

"The frustration level is amazing. The governor is going to go ahead and allow restaurants to go to full 100 percent capacity. But in our county where we're having wedding venues and people are trying to get married in June and July of this year, we're restricting that.” – County Commissioner John Schoonmaker

Health Department director Dr. Martha Buchanan, who works for Jacobs, has said consistently that public health data will drive the department’s decisions. Monday evening, she told commissioners that the task force will meet Tuesday.

“Our plan is to release some information later this week, probably on Thursday,” Buchanan said. “Probably not all the details, but some announcement about possibly who will be able to open in Phase Two. We are right now just really reviewing the data.”

On Monday, the Health Department reported three new confirmed cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, bringing the cumulative total over the last two months to 311. Of those, 45 were listed as active cases Monday, with none currently hospitalized. The county’s death toll to date remained unchanged at five.

Active cases spiked last week to 69, their highest level yet, but have fallen off quickly as patients have recovered.

Several commissioners had questions for Jacobs and Buchanan about the reopening plans. Some said they were hearing exasperation from people about ongoing restrictions.

“The frustration level is amazing,” said Commissioner John Schoonmaker, who represents Concord and Farragut. “The governor is going to go ahead and allow restaurants to go to full 100 percent capacity. But in our county where we're having wedding venues and people are trying to get married in June and July of this year, we're restricting that.”

Commissioner Evelyn Gill asked Knox County Schools officials about their plans for reopening to students in August.

“We don’t know,” Superintendent Bob Thomas said. “We haven’t gotten a whole lot of direction yet from the state department (of education). We’re trying to close out this year, obviously, but we are making plans and looking at several different scenarios for the fall.”

For example, he said, if physical distancing rules are still in place, the school system could look at an A-B schedule where students would go to school every other day and have remote instruction at home on the alternate days.

Among the agenda items Commission discussed last night was the school system’s plan to purchase new laptops so that each Knox County student could have a take-home device.

Thomas told commissioners it would cost about $15 million over three years to lease the Chromebooks. The school system plans to use about $7 million in federal CARES Act relief funds to jumpstart the effort, and in later years it would be part of the regular budget.

“It’s something we have to do, because of the situation we found ourselves in this spring,” Thomas said, “where we were not able to introduce new learning to our students in a situation where we were not in school.”