Threatening Messages Condemned

Threatening Messages Condemned

The Knox County Board of Health passes a resolution denouncing the threats local officials of all stripes have received over the pandemic response.

by scott barker • January 14, 2021
Knox County Board of Health.

In a move that underscores the tensions and divisions spawned by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Knox County Board of Health passed a resolution Wednesday condemning violence and threats of violence against county officials and employees.

Law enforcement has provided security for some county officials threatened in recent weeks.

The largely symbolic resolution states that the board “recognizes that violent opportunists use the cover of legitimate protest or dissent by their fellow citizens to sow chaos.”

The board said it also “recognizes that while our opinions may differ, we are primarily concerned with the safety and welfare of the residents of Knox County, the State of Tennessee and the Nation.”

The matter was broached during the meeting’s public forum by Kevin Hill, a prominent local opponent of the board’s mandate to wear masks in public indoor spaces. 

Hill said he was concerned for Knox County commissioners, who took the first step last month to dissolve the Board of Health. Commission Chair Larsen Jay, Commissioners Justin Biggs, Charles Busler and Kyle Ward, and other officials said in December they had received threats.

Apparently the work of the same person, the emails sent to officials began, "I have been hired to kill you here in Tennessee, am having a second thought," and suggested there might be a way to negotiate a settlement. 

They mention no political demands or grievances and have evidently been sent to both Democratic and Republican officials. The targets fell on both sides of the debate over the future of the Board of Health — Busler, Ward and Biggs voted on first reading to dissolve the board, while Jay voted to keep the board intact. A second and final reading of the ordinance is scheduled for Jan. 25, though Ward, the sponsor, has said he might delay consideration.

The Knox County Sheriff’s Office is investigating the threats, and law enforcement officers have provided security for at least some officials.

The threats do not mention the Board of Health and there is no indication they are related to Ward’s proposal, but Hill — who has been verbally assailing the board and its mandates at County Commission meetings for months — argued that they were intended to “foolishly show solidarity” for the board. He said it was incumbent on board members “to come out in a very strong and very powerful way show complete and utter displeasure and distaste for that kind of behavior.”

Board member Dr. Patrick O’Brien agreed that threats were unacceptable and noted that he and his colleagues had been threatened as well.

“It didn't really make the news but we've had threats, and we all, I think, who provide services to the public right now are having some difficulties, so you know we condemn threats against them,” O’Brien said. “We condemn the threats against us that we've had to report to law enforcement and to ask for additional protection.”

Dr. Maria Hurt said, “The threat of violence — threatening anyone's life, any public official, any non-public official, any ordinary citizen — is wrong. It's illegal.”

Deputy Law Director David Sanders drafted the resolution during the meeting while board members were taking care of other business. At the end of the meeting, he presented a draft to members for discussion.

Dr. James Shamiyeh described the resolution as “broad and appropriate,” but was concerned about unintended consequences.

“I think my question is, if someone was so moved, could this be inflammatory to the right audience and actually exacerbate an issue as opposed to improve it,” he said.

Hurt said it was better to make a statement. “There's a potential, I'm sure, for someone to weaponize our good intentions as there often is, but I would rather personally and professionally and us as a group err on the side of being very clear,” she said. 

The board voted 10-o to adopt the resolution.

In other action, board members extended the limitation on public gatherings and 10 p.m. cutoff time for alcohol sales. Both are now in effect until 12:01 a.m. on February 4.

There was a slight shift in support for the early closure regulation for bars and restaurants that serve alcohol, however. Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs, who has generally opposed restrictions on businesses, was joined in dissenting by citizen representative Ami Roma.

Roma said that she was apprehensive about voting against an extension, but asserted the regulation ignores other businesses such as theaters and gyms that could be sources of community spread. 

“I'm concerned that this regulation, the way that it's so specific, might be contributing to some distrust and non-adherence,” she said. “And it places an unproportional burden on restaurants and bars.”

Dr. Martha Buchanan, a board member and director of the Knox County Health Department, said the restriction treats all restaurants and bars the same, just as other health regulations do.

She also referred to the White House Coronavirus Task Force’s recommendation to close bars altogether in characterizing the restriction as a “compromise for the community.”

Referring to the same White House report, Shamiyeh said he preferred to wait to see if the recent slowing of new COVID-19 cases would continue. 

“I would not be in the mind today that we needed to increase any sort of regulation because I kind of want to see where that heads,” he said. “But on the other hand, and knowing what the White House report said, I'd like to see a little more of what we just started from a training standpoint before I would be ready to pull anything back.”

Dr. Marcy Souza said she was reluctant to lift restrictions with University of Tennessee students returning to campus later this month.

“They're going to be rolling back into town and I guess that just worries me a little bit,” she said. “If you look at what happened back in September, we had the influx of students come back in and when we saw that first spike this fall.” 

The bar and restaurant closure restriction was extended by an 8-2 vote. An extension until Feb. 4 of the 10-person limitation on public gatherings — which has numerous exemptions — passed on a 9-1 vote, with Jacobs voting no. The county’s mask mandate does not have a sunset provision and remains in effect indefinitely.