Restrictions Under Fire
The Knox County Board of Health is increasingly a target of conservative anger. County Commission is considering proposals that would change its power and make-up.
by jesse fox mayshark • September 21, 2020
A still from a video narrated by Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs that was posted last week and then taken down. It shows the Knox County board of health.
A simmering movement among some Republican elected officials and local residents angry about mask requirements and business restrictions is aiming to rein in the Knox County Board of Health.
And who was behind that video narrated by County Mayor Glenn Jacobs?
Tonight, at its monthly work session, Knox County Commission will discuss two resolutions aimed at the volunteer board that has been charged with setting public health rules during the coronavirus pandemic.
One would add a citizen member to the body, which is currently made up of medical professionals along with County Mayor Glenn Jacobs and a school system representative. The other would essentially neuter the board, placing the county’s public health plan under Gov. Bill Lee’s statewide “Tennessee Pledge.”
The proposals will be aired five days after a video by a previously unknown group called Freedom Forward TN was posted to Facebook, featuring narration by Jacobs and implying that the Board of Health is among the “sinister forces” bent on tearing apart American society.
That Facebook page is no longer visible, meaning it has either been deleted or changed to a private setting that allows only members to see it. As of Sunday evening, the video was no longer publicly available online.
The surge in activism against the Board of Health’s restrictions has been encouraged by Jacobs and other local officials, including state Rep. Jason Zachary. It has grown online, in both public and private Facebook groups, as area residents have urged each other to refuse to wear masks at the grocery store and have created petitions calling for the Board of Health to be dismissed.
During public forum at Commission meetings during the last two months, audience members have railed against the Board of Health, questioned the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic, alleged that wearing face masks is either unhealthy or dangerous, and urged County Commission to intervene.
Public forum at tonight’s meeting is likely to be lively, as well. (Any Knox County resident can sign up to speak at public forum by calling (865) 215-2534.)
The discussion at tonight’s meeting will set the stage for voting on the proposals at Commission’s regular monthly meeting next Monday, Sept. 28.
At-Large Commissioner Justin Biggs is sponsoring both of the Board of Health resolutions being presented tonight. He proposed the addition of a citizen representative to the board after Deputy Law Director David Sanders told commissioners that was a possibility last month.
Biggs has proposed to appoint restaurateur Randy Burleson to the board, which is made up of two physicians, a dentist, a pharmacist, a registered nurse and a veterinarian, in addition to Jacobs and Lisa Wagoner, the health services supervisor for Knox County Schools.
But if the position is created, Commission Chair Larsen Jay said Commission — in line with its usual rules for appointments — will consider applications from across the community, not just Burleson.
“I will be explaining the process on Monday night,” Jay said in a text message on Sunday, “and anyone who wishes to be considered for nomination will have an opportunity to submit their name and credentials.”
Meanwhile, Biggs and newly sworn-in 4th District Commissioner Kyle Ward are bringing a second resolution, which would have to first be approved as an addition to the agenda. It would essentially remove the Board of Health from the lead role it has assumed in the county’s response to the pandemic.
The board had been on the sidelines during the early months of the pandemic, but was thrust into the fray in June at the prompting of the county Law Department. Since then, it has instituted a countywide mask mandate for indoor public places, reduced the number of people allowed to gather in one place and set a curfew of 11 p.m. for bars and restaurants that serve alcohol.
Under Biggs and Ward’s resolution, the county would be placed only under the “Tennessee Pledge” guidelines, which do not include a mask mandate or early closing times for bars or restaurants. The county would refuse to cite, arrest or prosecute anyone for not complying with Board of Health orders.
The Board of Health is already operating under the Tennessee Pledge, but issued its more restrictive orders as allowed by Gov. Bill Lee’s executive orders covering counties with independent health departments.
“I do really appreciate the Board of Health and everything they’ve done, I think they’ve done a good job,” Biggs said Sunday.
But, he said, he doesn’t think the county’s COVID-19 data justifies the board’s continued interventions. He said he was bothered at a recent meeting when board members could not provide a clear end point for the mask mandate.
“The answer was no,” Biggs said. “That threw up a large red flag for me.”
As of Sunday, Knox County reported 1,812 active cases of COVID-19, with 30 people hospitalized. Seventy-three county residents have died from complications of COVID-19, while 7,612 cases are now classified as “inactive” (a term that the state introduced to replace “recovered”).
Biggs said business owners need more predictability than waiting to see what the Board of Health decides each week. “I think it’s time we have a clear path forward,” he said.
Jacobs is the only elected official on the Board of Health and was also the only member of the board to vote against the mask mandate, the tighter restriction on gatherings and the curfews. He successfully lobbied the board to add a public forum during its sessions, which have been dominated by people challenging the efficacy of masks and the science behind COVID-19 public health guidelines.
In posts to a private anti-mask Facebook group reviewed by Compass, members talked about having conversations with Jacobs as early as July. “Mayor Jacobs loves the idea,” one group member posted in July about a proposal to host a “virtual town hall” to air their grievances with the Board of Health.
In another post, a member wrote, “Just watched Mayor Jacobs not only get the board to agree to a public forum online — but to think it was their idea. It was great.” Another member replied, “A few of us are meeting him tomorrow and I’m so excited.”
Mike Donila, the county’s communications director, said in response to a question about the posts that Jacobs meets with a wide range of citizens, but was not involved in urging specific groups to get engaged.
Last Wednesday, a three-minute video narrated by Jacobs was posted on the Facebook page of something called Freedom Forward TN. The page appeared to have been created just days earlier and had fewer than 150 “Likes” at the time the video was posted. It described itself as a “nonprofit organization.”
Over a collage of video clips, including some from Knoxville, Jacobs warned that America was “once again under attack. Not from some ominous enemy abroad, but from sinister forces within." The first of those sinister forces? "Unelected bureaucrats," Jacobs said — over a screenshot of the Knox County Board of Health (including Jacobs, visible on the screen).
The video also included violent imagery from recent street protests against police brutality and warned ominously that “It will happen here.”
Responding to questions on Friday about the video, Jacobs said that the primary organizer for Freedom Forward was Roger Cunningham, owner of The Bed Store chain of mattress shops. Attempts to reach Cunningham over the weekend were unsuccessful.
Jacobs said that he, Cunningham and state Rep. Jason Zachary wrote the text for the video. He also confirmed that he, Zachary and Sheriff Tom Spangler had participated in a panel discussion at an event that Cunningham organized, but he declined to say where or when the event was held or who was invited to it, directing those questions to Cunningham.
“I am not directly involved in Freedom Forward,” Jacobs said. “I was invited as a guest.”
Jacobs rejected the characterization of Freedom Forward as a secretive group, saying, “It is a public Facebook group.” But before the page was either deleted or made private, it listed no contact information for administrators or any information about who was involved. A Facebook message sent to the page on Friday was not answered.
As of Sunday morning, the page was no longer publicly visible, and the video had not been posted anywhere else immediately apparent.
Jacobs posted his own video on Friday — his regular weekly update on news and events around the county. He noted that the Knox County Health Department had reported an increased volume of abuse and anger from community members, particularly directed at those charged with enforcing the county’s health orders and doing contact tracing for active COVID-19 cases.
“If you want to do something constructive, don’t scream at the good folks at our Health Department,” Jacobs said in the video. “They’ve done a great job and I believe they are a major part of the reason that Knox County has fared better than many other areas.”
He praised county Health Director Dr. Martha Buchanan as “a kind, compassionate person who wants to do the right thing,” and he even had kind words for his fellow Board of Health members: “good, civic-minded individuals who have taken on a responsibility to make these decisions from a public health perspective.”
Rather than venting at Board of Health members, Jacobs said in the Friday video, people who are angry about health mandates should direct their attention to the state Legislature. A bill introduced by Zachary in June would have put the authority for public health decisions under the county mayor, but it was defeated in committee (at the urging of another Knoxville legislator, state Sen. Richard Briggs).
“Maybe that was justified, maybe not,” Jacobs said. “But you need to make your voice heard when it comes up again.”