Restrictions to Continue
Knox County’s health officer says she will extend public health orders when full pandemic response decisions fall to her.
Dr. Martha Buchanan, director of the Knox County Health Department, plans to issue new orders keeping the county’s mask mandate and restaurant restrictions in place when she takes sole responsibility for COVID-19 pandemic response measures on April 13.
Dr. Martha Buchanan will have to issue new orders to replace those put in place by the Board of Health. The new orders, necessitated by the Knox County Commission’s vote last week to strip policy-making authority from the county Board of Health, will sustain the status quo at least until April 22. That’s when the board’s restaurant restriction order would expire without an extension.
“I will have to issue new orders if I wish to keep the regulations in place, and I will be keeping the mask mandate in place as is,” Buchanan said Thursday during the Health Department’s weekly media briefing.
She said the Knox County Law Department advised her that she would need to issue new orders because the orders issued by the Board of Health will automatically expire April 13, when the ordinance removing its authority goes into effect.
The mask mandate requires that anyone 12 years of age or older must wear a face covering in indoor public spaces when social distancing can’t be maintained. The mandate doesn’t have an expiration date, but Buchanan will need to issue a new order before the Board of Health’s authority disappears.
The long-term fate of the restaurant restrictions isn’t so certain. Buchanan said she would probably issue an order to keep them in place until April 22, as originally intended by the Board of Health. She said she plans to meet with the board in its new advisory-only capacity on April 21 before making her decision on an extension.
Under the current order, restaurants and event venues are restricted to 50 percent capacity. Bars and restaurants that serve alcohol must close daily at 1 a.m., three hours later than previous orders but two hours before restrictions were first put in place.
Buchanan said she has had conversations with Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs, who serves on the Board of Health but has consistently opposed restrictions, about possible future measures.
“I have spoken with Mayor Jacobs, and his opinions on regulations are not a secret,” she said. “He certainly has some concerns. We'll continue those conversations.”
Buchanan remained firm in her authority as the county’s public health officer to issue orders under state law.
“The health officer of the Health Department has the authority to put regulations in place that we see are appropriate, and we'll be moving forward with that,” she said.
Through Knox County Communications Director Mike Donila, Jacobs declined to comment on any private discussions he’s had with Buchanan. In the past, he has said he supports and has confidence in her despite their disagreements over restrictions.
“He still has confidence in Dr. Buchanan,” Donila said.
Buchanan said she has not spoken to any county commissioners since their 8-3 vote on March 29 to dissolve the Board of Health as a policy-making body while keeping it as an advisory panel. The Commission vote came after months of vocal opposition to the Board of Health and its mandates from a group of county residents who would speak out at public meetings.
Buchanan said she appreciated commissioners retaining an advisory role for the Board of Health.
“I do think that's really important,” she said. “These are really big decisions, and they are not taken lightly, and having a panel of experts to bounce ideas off of and discuss things with is very important, so I'm appreciative of them keeping that in place. To have done away with the Board of Health and not kept an advisory committee of experts and professionals would have been more challenging.”
With the exception of Dr. Patrick O’Brien, the Board of Health members have said they will stay on in their advisory capacity. In an email to commissioners, O’Brien wrote that he could not adequately serve in an advisory capacity. Most Board of Health members are members of medical professional organizations, and O’Brien has been a representative of the Knoxville Academy of Medicine.
“We will make an official request to the Academy of Medicine to nominate a replacement,” Buchanan said.
The shift in responsibilities comes as the encouraging decline in new cases and hospitalizations has leveled off. The county’s 14-day average of 10 new cases per 100,000 residents has remained fairly steady for the past month after steadily dropping from a high of 113 per 100,000 residents in December. Regional hospitalizations are one-sixth their January high point.
Vaccination rates are rising rapidly as more doses have become available through more providers. One-third of Knox County residents have received at least one dose, while 18.7 percent of the population is now fully vaccinated.
“We still have a way to go,” Buchanan said, “but I'm very pleased with the progress we've made so far.”