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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.