Knox County Board of Health Hosts Public Forum and Re-Opens Bars

After opening the meeting, the public forum began, with speakers and Mayor Jacobs joining from the City County Building. Thirteen people were present and he requested that they all be able to speak, even though that exceeded the 30 minutes. He made it clear there should be no profanity and no attack on the Board Members. A new representative from the law office, David Sanders, joined the meeting.

Main points from each speaker at the Public Forum (I had to guess at spellings of names):

  • Bob Fisher comp complained about a lack of integrity in leadership from President Trump down. He said there has been gas-lighting and deliberate misinformation including during board meetings in which disingenuous questions were posed to the board. He said we need to stop quibbling around the edges and be serious because the situation is going to get worse and something must be done to preserve public health.
  • Charles Smith said leadership should not be deferred to whoever tweets the most and there has been a failure of leadership. He said political pressure should be kept from the board and directed at leaders and businesses which do not support good public health decisions. He said the county government had undermined the authority of the board by not enforcing board action and added that we live in a state where many do not have health insurance and we owe it to them to do what is needed.
  • Chuck Ward, the owner of Cotton-Eyed Joe, said he’s taken every precaution possible, as have other bar owners, including requiring masks, providing sanitizer, taking temperatures and more. He said bar owners should not be punished when spread at other businesses and from travel contributes to cases. He said there is not enough evidence that bars are the problem and that is lost to other counties. He said shutting down could cause him to lose his bar and he thanked Mayor Jacobs for his leadership.
  • Nathan Robinette, owner of Casual Pint, started by thanking Mayor Jacobs for the community forum. He stated that the order to close bars is unfair and said that he has done everything requested. He said they are not out to make customers sick and the solution isn’t closing our economy. He said he could support the curfew idea being floated at least for a limited amount of time. He said the Board needs to do a better job of educating the 21 – 35 year old demographic.
  • Troy Hale, the owner of Bucket Head, thanked the board for their efforts and said he doesn’t envy their job. He said this is an economic crisis, not only a health crisis. Same as the others, he said he’s done everything asked by the board and noted no single case was connected to his bar. He said they were down 38% for the first quarter and that isn’t sustainable. He said of the seventeen bars he checked, only one other had closed as required last week. He expressed concern that if the board imposes a 10:00 pm curfew, customers can leave the bars and continue drinking at restaurants.
  • David Hamblen thanked everyone and stated he is an engineer and the spouse of a restaurant owner. He was furloughed for some time and his wife’s restaurant was impacted. He expressed support for mask mandates and other action. He said public schools should not be opening given our current numbers, advocating a more cautious approach. He ended with a plead for empathy by wearing masks to help our neighbors and medical professionals.
  • Aaron Thompson, owner of Sapphire, focused on bars that are also restaurants. He acknowledged that the virus is a real threat and said his staff takes it seriously. He said the 50% food sales is not a fair standard, noting their food program typically produces $200,000 to $300,000 per year. He said bars should not be treated more severely than restaurants and asked that bars with food programs be allowed to operate and that others be allowed to create a food program or that they be provided financial support if they are to be closed.
  • Steve Cyphrey (?) thanked everyone for the forum. He said he supports the decisions the board has made and feels it will help our economy open up sooner. He said he feels they have the authority and are following the science, and that if the spread isn’t contained there will only be more long-term economic damage.
  • Allison Efferson (?) introduced herself as a mental health practitioner. She noted that the board is not elected and said they have to consider the damage their decisions produce. She said the science is out on masks and many people do not accept them. In deciding to pass the mandate they have removed the ability to make personal decisions, which is damaging to mental health. She said neighbors are turning on neighbors and suicides are up. She wanted to know when it will end. She said people have lost hope.
  • Jeffy Gorey (?), said masking would help save our economy and that the community has the right to impose orders to do so. “Your rights end where mine begin.” He pointed out that Mayor Jacobs started his career wearing a mask and that being against masks is a publicity stunt. This is not a partisan issue.
  • Deborah Stafford (a mental health worker?) said women who have been raped are traumatized by having their face covered by masks and that black men are conflicted about wearing masks for fear of being targeted. She said she has heard from her patients that they want to die because of loss of social contact. She said asymptomatic spread is not supported by data. Over 75% of her patients have had a weight gain putting them more at risk. She said she was kicked out at Tenova for not wearing a mask to work out even though she tried to explain she has an exemption.
  • Victor Romero said that the board is not elected and they have no right to close a business, saying they have probably not missed a paycheck. He said it easy for them to make decisions when it doesn’t impact them, that they have inflated data and have no right to dictate anything to anyone. He said they should take a stand against tyranny and protect our health, but also our liberty. He claimed there were more deaths from the flu in 2017 than there have been locally from COVID-19. He demanded the power be stripped from the board.
  • Russell Ray, a physician currently in primary care, started by noting that vaccines help our bodies develop immunity and that herd immunity works the same way. He said the pandemic isn’t going away and that eventually everyone will be exposed, that the death rate is very low, and asymptomatic spread doesn’t happen. He said shutdowns extend the life of the virus and masks don’t work because people repeatedly touch them, as well as other issues.

Age Demographics for Cases and Hospitalizations 8.5.2020

After the forum, the board continued with the agenda and the first motion was to revise it to remove an an item intended to restrict public gatherings of large numbers of people in small spaces. Dr. O’Brien proposed it, but said needs more work. It was removed.

Dr. Buchanan updated the board on the current situation and the benchmarks (covered in the previous article). She said the recent days’ case numbers are encouraging. Dr. Shamiyeh questioned the data about testing, saying it looks to him like testing volume is going down (Ed. Note: The trend line is still up – which is a good example of why I and others have suggested the trend lines are not a good choice). She said tests are only reflected there when there are results, meaning that the numbers could go up for the last week. Charity Menefee acknowledged that they think they are seeing a downturn in testing and that the state is seeing it, too, but they are not sure why.

Hospitalizations by Week and Month 8.5.2020

Dr. Shamiyeh expressed concerns about public health capacity. He said the department had 206 tracers last week and he wondered how many are there now and how is that going to work as schools open and there are more cases. Dr. Buchanan said each tracer has about 6 to 8 interviews a day. She said the schools will partner with the health department to help trace contacts in schools. Capacity will also be expanded with the new state funding.

Dr. Shamiyeh gave his weekly report from U.T. Medical Center. The charts included here are his. He made the point that we are reaching each new thousand cases more quickly in Knox County and the region. He pointed to stronger evidence that the mask imposition helped turn the curve of new cases and he thinks they are beginning to see a slowing of hospitalizations.

Rates Before and After the Mask Mandate

His main point was that the slight slowing in cases over the last few days would completely shift the trajectory of expected cases, hospitalizations and deaths – if it is maintained. He said it is too early to be certain the information is not more than an anomaly and warned it could shift again as variables change – like the opening of public schools and the return of college students to our campuses.

Dr. Buchanan led a discussion regarding the mask requirement. Dr. Gotcher said he feels while there is still division there seem to be more people wearing them. Others agreed. Dr. Shamiyeh reiterated that there seems to be a downturn related to the timing of the imposition of the mandate.

Case Growth by Week and Month 8.5.2020

They reviewed the bar closure and opened discussion regarding shifting the regulation to allow bars to be open until 10 PM each night. Dr. O’Brien authored it. He said data suggests there are not clusters of cases related to bars locally and he doesn’t want an undue burden to a particular business.

Dr. Shamiyeh made the point that we knew a week ago that we didn’t have local data, but based the decision on the unlikelihood that the five core actions would be followed in that environment. He said we may not always have the needed level of local data and have to use logic. Dr. O’Brien agreed and said perhaps this step would be required later. Dr. Gotcher said he has concerns regarding the many distinctions in similar businesses.

Pace of New Thousands of Cases 8.5.2020

Dr. Hurt countered that the proposal was based on the task force recommendations and others, as well as the coming opening of schools and UT, each of which might increase spread. She said we can’t always react, but have to anticipate or we’ll be behind the virus. Dr. Buchanan said the majority of bars and restaurants are following the guidelines. She did point out that the younger people are where the current spread is found and noted that Nashville and Arizona have seen improved numbers after closing bars.

Dr. Hurt suggested that the curfew should relate to on premise consumption of alcohol at all locations in order to be fair to bar owners. Mayor Jacobs pointed out that the regulation was to prevent drunken behavior, but her amendment would do little to help that. He said people are going to do what they want to do, but in a restaurant the environment is more controlled.

This Weeks District Projection Compared to Previous Week’s Projections

Dr. Shamiyeh said it is about results to him: what will be effective. He asked if the group believes this change will make the business owners more cooperative and Dr. O’Brien said he thinks so and it can be reviewed going forward.

Dr. Drake voted no to the change, but the remainder of the group voted yes and it passed: Bars can now open until 10 pm each night.

They also decided to continue to have a public forum, but to do so once a month. The public was asked to use the Board of Health email to contact the board members. The link is on the bottom of the Board of Health page. It was noted going forward that David Sanders will be the attorney working with the board.

Comments

  1. You’re the best.

    • Joyce Richman says

      I don’t understand the mask controversy. How else do people think the virus is spreading exponentially?!

    • LocalDogMom says

      I second this! You’re the best and this coverage has been a lifeline during the entire pandemic.

  2. Dr. Hurt’s amendment to put bars and restaurants on equal footing was the main thing I wanted to see happen from this meeting. I was surprised and thrilled one of the board introduced the idea! Quite literally, when we close Sapphire at 10:00pm on Friday, we can go to another restaurant in downtown Knoxville for cocktails at their bar until they decide to close that night. Restaurants can remain open until 3:00am right now if they want to. There is nothing to stop them from taking advantage of the void that the ruling would potentially cause. I say potentially, because most of our competitors most likely won’t actually pay attention to this ruling because the KCHD has no enforcement as of yet. I’m infuriated that the board didn’t listen or second Dr Hurt’s amendment. Those of us who are trying to do the right thing still remain punished by this ruling.

  3. So our Knoxville resolve has lasted two days at closing bars.? The recent data is encouraging, but it is only three or four days worth of downward trend, which is perhaps suspect. (CDC le that go mid-July in favor of hospitals reporting directly to The White House). Now that a 10 o’clock curfew has been established, locations will be more jammed and lack of distancing assured. I simply do not understand this logic. I was tempted to attend the in-person gathering, but held off for various reasons, including abstaining from indoor gatherings, as well as my personal job commitments with 2020 Census commitments, which are likewise troubled.

    • You make it sound as if every single bar is now going to be reminiscent of cumberland avenue after a football game. You have maybe listening to our mayor too much recenrly? Any bar owner knows she’s had bars in her crosshairs for sometime now. Clearly, you’re not familiar with any of the “bars” downtown or in south knoxville or north knoxville. Especially the local breweries and distilleries in Knoxville. We’ve frequented most of the breweries and both of the distilleries and I was blown away by how serious they’ve all taken the guidelines. Proper social distancing, no sitting at the bar, mask wearing, sanitation. Your idea of what is going to be happening now right before 10 o’clock with bars being jam packed is a fairytale. I’m sure if you went to cool beans on the strip, it may actually be like that- and they should be held accountable. All I see here is the county being rational and being more fair to businesses that are simply doing their best to make it during this difficult time. Also, please spare me the “collecting a paycheck wont matter if you’re dead” nonsense.

      • Bob Fischer says

        I know a little bit about what has gone on in bars and what is going on in bars. I’ve been to various bars around town on and off for the last forty five years. As an essential worker, my drive home has been my only entertainment since March. I have been able to track the virus two weeks out by watching the crowds and how they were managed, at the bars, while driving home. The idea that bar owners are doing their part to slow the spread is really laughable. There is NO social distancing in the lines nor anywhere outside. Mask use is damn near nonexistent. Take a drive and look. Last weeks spike started in the Old City and downtown. Our police forces are getting ready to be hit, as a result of offering security for these businesses. I will give Buckethead credit. He, at least, has been trying, but there really are no good solutions here.

        • The fact you’re referencing buckethead is laughable. Well, luckily enough for service industry people, Bob Fischer doesn’t get to make the rules. Regardless of what some people may say, a good majority of the downtown bars and breweries are taking the recommendations seriously and following protocol. Well, maybe not out in West Knoxville (sorry Bob) . Anyone who really frequents them, especially breweries- knows this. We appreciate them allowing us to remain open!

          • Bob Fischer says

            You are dreaming. Three Friday’s ago was a zoo. This week, one of the so-called compliant bars was full, no social distancing at their outdoor tables. I’m not a cop, and I don’t check every bar in Knoxville, so I hesitate to call anyone out by name. Old City and Downtown bars are the worst though, and they’re clearly not going to police themselves. I look for the curve to be going back up within two weeks. The data will speak for itself and if the close bar order happens to be reinstated, the bar owners will have no one but themselves to blame. I hope they get their act together. I’m not banking on it.

        • You are absolutely full of it. Bars have been absolutely taking it seriously downtown.

          • Bob Fischer says

            We’ll see. I’ll take a look tonight and tomorrow. Maybe I’ll see doormen in masks and taking temperatures and enforcing distancing, but if I do, it will be a change. Bad apples will spoil this bushel.

          • I don’t doubt that they are at this point. The problem is about 60% of their regular patrons are not in town. The college kid population is not on campus and makes up a majority of the bar population downtown and north of Knoxville onto central. We won’t have a real good picture as to what is going to happen until they get back.

            My fear is that being controlled on campus will only escalate their behavior off campus. I lived on Gay St for five years. There is a huge difference between classes in and out for semesters. Getting late 20 and 30 year olds to listen is a lot different.

            Other states and counties I have worked consider a bar to be a place that has 80% alcohol sales. I feel like Knoxville should adopt something more like that, then to say bars and restaurants are on the same footing. They are not. Not even close.

          • Bob Fischer says

            Dave and Alison, I took you both at your word and was looking forward to my nightly survey. Sadly, both of you are seriously misinformed. From Powell, through Happy Holler, Old City, downtown, the Strip and out west, the new regulation is being almost universally ignored. With three notable exceptions, everyone was still open. I will presume that many of these were playing a semantics game with the regulations, but there is clearly no unity of cause or purpose among bars and restaurants. Nobody is taking this seriously. The Board of Health needs to suspend all on premise alcohol sales after ten pm and enforce it via pulling health scores. Shut down those in non-compliance.

      • KnoxvilleUrbanGuy says

        Alison, for clarity, could you tell me who “she” is who has had “bars in her crosshairs for sometime now?” I’m not taking a position, but wanting clarity to the reference. Thank you.

        • KUB- I was referring to our Knoxville City Mayor, I.K.
          All one has to do is look at her instagram/facebook postings and see that she’s been wanting them closed for sometime now.

          • KnoxvilleUrbanGuy says

            I thought that might be what you meant. Just to be clear, she has had no power or control over the response to the virus, as the governor circumvented city mayors in a very early executive order.

  4. George Scott says

    Thank you, Alan. Your reporting is vital.

  5. Everything that came out of Physician Russel Ray’s mouth was a lie. Why didn’t anybody fact check him? If he was my doctor, I’d be finding a new one immediately.

    • KnoxvilleUrbanGuy says

      There was no set-up to fact check. I wondered if the Board might address some of the comments directly when they returned after the forum, but they, probably wisely, decided to avoid that. But, yes, some of what was said was completely detached from reality.

    • Bob Fischer says

      I’m not sure speaking to the Board of Health constitutes being under oath.

    • Yeah, I was really wishing for fact-checking for several of those speakers. But that doctor was the worst.

  6. Thanks, Alan. I didn’t read a lot of your article for today, but will come back to it later. Seeing the BOH reopen the bars is a huge disappointment to me. I’m really not sure if anyone is really concerned for our health. Just frustrating.

    • Exactly. I will never understand the obsession with the bar scene during this mess. I don’t agree with any bar owners defying properly vetted orders from the health board and would never patronize any business blatantly defying common sense public health measures.. There are plenty of other types of businesses suffering. They are not the only participants in the economy and could be using their energy to innovate more effective ways of mitigating loss. Plenty of others are focused and diversifying successfully. This bar debate is infuriating and exhausting.

  7. I just can’t imagine or figure out what difference it’s going to make closing bars at 10:00pm. A lot of restaurants serve alcohol, so are they closing at 10:00 pm as well?
    Bottom line is how do they think bars closing at 10 pm is going to curb the infections? Positive tests and death numbers are going to get much worse with schools opening. Our leaders better get a grip on this now because things will get worse than what the world experienced with the 1918 pandemic. Until we get a vaccine, or effective treatment for covid, it’s not going to disappear as “some” people have stated.

    • Bob Fischer says

      There was no difference. There were a couple bars acting in good faith, but the vast majority kept right on rolling through the curfew. I fear our downward tic will prove to be an aberration. Now is the time to make plans that don’t include football this fall. I just don’t see it happening.

  8. When Mayor Jacobs was in favor of the public forum, with a limit to 10 people, I thought “It’s going to be all the anti-mask people”. I was half right: a lot of bar owners also made the cut. Watching these meetings has been a learning experience. Maria Hurt said she got 100s of emails from bar owners. This health board puts profit/business ahead of public health, yet again. Some of the arguments were transparently frustratingly biased: College students are too young, so they don’t go to bars (Jacobs). We’ll get better compliance with a 10:00 curfew than by closing them down (Buchanan). (A higher speed limit will get better compliance too, but will result in more lives lost. )

    We desperately need more people who care about public health and welfare to run for office.

    • Joyce Richman says

      Keep voting for Republicans & this is what we’ll get. Thank God for Mayor Kincannon who has more sense than the rest of them.

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