Closing Times Mandated

Closing Times Mandated

Taking more action to combat the pandemic, the Board of Health votes to restrict alcohol sales and reduce the permitted size of gatherings.

by scott barker • September 17, 2020
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Sapphire on South Gay Street in downtown Knoxville.

Bars and restaurants that serve alcohol in Knox County will have to close at 11 p.m. under an order passed Wednesday by the Knox County Board of Health as a measure to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.

This week's visit from White House pandemic response coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx appeared to influence the Board of Health's actions.

Previously, the board had ordered bars — but not restaurants — to close at 10 p.m. The new, expanded order also applies to clubs that allow brown bagging, though it doesn’t apply to eateries that don’t serve or allow alcohol.

The board also lowered the maximum number of people allowed at gatherings from 50 to 25, though there are several exceptions.

“It’s taking our medicine now or taking our medicine later,” said board member Patrick O’Brien, who sponsored the alcohol sales order.

The measures passed on identical 8-1 votes, with Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs, who has consistently resisted coronavirus restrictions, the sole dissenter on both occasions. He was able to persuade board members to extend operating hours to 11 p.m.

Though the Board of Health members voted on the restrictions, the person who seemed to have the most influence on the outcome wasn’t at the meeting and isn’t a Knox County resident. 

Dr. Deborah Birx, the coronavirus response coordinator for the White House, came to town on Tuesday and met with University of Tennessee and local government officials. She emphasized that other communities had slowed the spread of the coronavirus by restricting late-night alcohol sales.

Several board members and others who spoke during Wednesday’s virtual meeting referred to Birx’s visit and her recommendations. Drinking lowers inhibitions, Birx said, raising the risk that bar patrons will ignore social distancing recommendations.

Students are a major driver in the recent rise in cases in Knox County. “That 14- to 22-year-old age group is where we’re seeing the most cases in our community,” said Knox County Health Department Director Dr. Martha Buchanan, adding that Knox County cases are rising faster than in other metropolitan counties in Tennessee.

O’Brien said he toured the Cumberland Avenue area adjacent to the University of Tennessee campus and other nightlife centers on Saturday and was appalled at the lack of social distancing he witnessed. 

O’Brien and other members referred to a photo gallery published by the News Sentinel that showed the same crowds, unmasked and pressed closely together.

“I was not happy, to say it politely, with what I saw,” O’Brien said. “Because of that, we need to look at what Dr. Birx talked about.”

Jacobs said restaurants and bars operate on thin margins already and don’t need more restrictions. He also noted that the Health Department has pointed to informal gatherings as the primary source of viral spread.

“When Dr. Buchanan does her contact tracing, it doesn't come back to bars,” he said.

Buchanan, however, noted that the risk of transmission is in congregating in enclosed spaces such as bars and restaurants. “Having this restriction has proven effective in other communities,” she said.

The new order takes effect at 12:01 a.m. Friday. It does not affect alcohol sales for off-premises consumption, which is allowed under orders issued by Gov. Bill Lee. 

“I think now is the time to take further action to mitigate suffering and prevent economic hardship,” said Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon, who doesn’t serve on the board but was invited to speak at the meeting.

Businesses have already organized their opposition to the order. Several restaurateurs sent a letter to the board through an attorney on Wednesday threatening legal action.

 “It’s kind of a shot-across-the-bow kind of letter,” said Deputy County Law Director David Sanders, who is working with the board. His advice was to not worry about possible lawsuits during deliberations. “Don’t be concerned about the legal issues. If they want to bring suit, they can bring suit.”

Cases of COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus, have risen dramatically in recent weeks in Knox County, with 3,338 new cases detected in the past month. Eleven people have died during the past two weeks. 

UT has actually reported a drop in active cases over the past two days, but new infections from last weekend wouldn’t show up yet because of the two-week COVID-19 incubation period.

“I’m very happy about the look of that curve,” UT Knoxville Chancellor Donde Plowman told board members. “We know it’s going to go up again, but for now we’ll take it.”

Plowman said the university hasn’t traced any cases to classroom or office situations, meaning the coronavirus is being spread among students in social situations.

Plowman said Birx told campus leaders that wearing masks and eliminating late-night alcohol sales would cause case numbers to drop within eight weeks, based on the experiences in other communities.

Buchanan said tracking down people who may have been exposed on campus is difficult because students are more social than the general public. She said most Knox County residents who have tested positive for COVID-19 report having four to six contacts, while the average for UT students is 20. 

Enforcement of the county’s mask mandate and the bar closing time restriction has been difficult. Knoxville Police Chief Eve Thomas told board members it’s tough for her officers to determine which establishments were covered under the previous order. She said the new order would be easier to enforce.

“We enforce the things you all ask us to enforce. That’s our job,” Thomas said. 

Violation of a health order is a Class C misdemeanor in Tennessee, punishable with a fine of up to $50 and up to 30 days in jail. Board members are frustrated that compliance isn’t universal.

“Clearly, education alone isn’t working,” board member Dr. Maria Hurt said.

The reduction in the size of gatherings prompted less discussion than the alcohol sales restriction. The measure limits gatherings to 25 people — down from 50 — within a 900-square-foot area. The restriction includes outdoor areas, including bar entrances, but has exemptions for schools, houses of worship, nursing homes, government-owned buildings, public transportation facilities, weddings and funerals. 

“Limiting the number of people who are exposed is the goal,” Buchanan said.

The board had recommended the 25-person limit at its meeting last week, but made it mandatory last night.