Board of Health Meeting: Board Codifies Restaurant and Bar Capacity

health Department

Dr. Souza chaired the meeting in the absence of Dr. Gotcher. All other members were present.

As they set the agenda, Mayor Jacobs asked for permission for Randy Burleson, owner of Aubrey’s, Fieldhouse Social, Sunspot and other restaurants, to address the board during the restaurant curfew discussion. It was agreed.

Dr. Buchanan presented this motion as an expansion of, and more specific information regarding the five core actions. Dr. O’Brien pointed out that these are common sense and if we could get everyone to observe these, we could avoid more restrictive measures. He urged people to particularly do so this week when so many people gather.

Dr. Shamiyeh pointed out that, while not mentioned specifically, carpooling with non-household contacts. is a risk. He also mentioned that when anyone is in your home, whether friends or repairmen or others, masks and maintaining distance are critical.

Mayor Jacobs also asked that something be added encouraging grocery stores and other businesses to have hours reserved for vulnerable populations.

The revised resolution was approved unanimously.

COVID-19 Restaurant Occupancy Limitation and Early Closure Regulation

Mr. Burleson expressed appreciation for being able to address the board. He said it is a misconception that restaurants are spreading the illness. He said his employees have rarely gotten it. One got it from his child and three managers now have it after a weekend fishing trip together. He said he has 1200 employees.

He said the 50% closure has been difficult. The months of March and April were very difficult, and he believes below 50% occupancy will cause many restaurants to close when they lose outdoor dining. He said they are trying to follow all guidance and he requested they not reduce capacity. He argued that spread isn’t happening there, and he feels the restaurants are keeping young people safe by keeping them at work and busy. He said they can’t pay bills at 25% capacity.

Dr. Souza asked if his restaurants were at 50% and he said yes, in Knox County, but higher than that in other counties with fewer restrictions. Dr. O’Brien said he feels restauranteurs have done well and he appreciated it. That said, he pointed out that the spread is due to people gathering at the restaurants, not anything the restaurants are doing. He asked Mr. Burleson if he might be willing to do more, such as single-household seating, which was done state-wide in Washington.

Mr. Burleson said that he has heard of that, but that people are going to mix elsewhere, if not at restaurants, and putting the burden on the restaurant is unfair as they are keeping people as safe as possible. He said they continue to ask people to wear masks as they enter and go to the restroom, whereas in other places that is not happening.

Mr. O’Brien said mobility data shows that restaurants are among the main meeting spots where people are interacting for over 15 minutes. He said he does not want to put more on the restaurants, but people are using restaurants more than any other location to gather. He again, asked if restricting tables to households would be better than reducing capacity or earlier closure.

Mr. Burleson said there is more gathering at Lakeshore Park than at restaurants. He said there are people coming to restaurants, but they are healthy. He said that movement doesn’t necessarily imply a lack of safety. He noted there has been a drop in business over the last week as the media has “stirred up the story.”

Mr. Burleson said when the numbers went up in July, business went down accordingly. He said senior adults have stayed away and that younger, less vulnerable people are coming to restaurants, which he sees as better than them gathering where no precautions are in place. He said restaurants want to be partners.

Dr. Shamiyeh, expressed appreciation to Mr. Burleson. He said he was pleased to hear the 50% rule is being followed since that is simply a suggestion in the Tennessee Pledge. He asked Mr. Burleson if that would be the case in other restaurants. Mr. Burleson said he did not know, but that his restaurants want their customers to be safe and they are following the 50% state recommendation. Dr. Shamiyeh reiterated that it isn’t an issue of the staff, but people gathering, unmasked across a table.

Dr. Shamiyeh asked if there was any monetary help coming to restaurants now or soon as is the case in Kentucky. Mr. Burleson said the PPE in March and April kept them open. He said they do not currently expect any additional federal money. Further, he said the CARES money from the state was used entirely in Memphis and Nashville. Dr. O’Brien said the money was directed to municipalities over 500,000 people. He said the state has money, but none is currently allocated to Knox County. There is no safety net.

Mr. Burleson said that PPE was received, and it sits on the book as a liability, which is damaging for borrowing. He said, further, the indication is that they will be forgiven, but taxed at 39.5%.

Dr. O’Brien noted that during the meeting Nashville/Davidson County has announced 50% restaurant capacity and 9:00 pm closures. It was pointed out that Shelby is doing the same, but that both have money available for support. Mayor Jacobs asked if 50% capacity would continue to be workable. Mr. Burleson said, it is hard as capacity is being lost. He said 10:00 pm would help and that they have been closing then except for when a UT game is on.

Dr. Hurt added that Memphis has a six-person limit per table and Nashville has an eight-person limit.

Dr. O’Brien said he feels 50% is reasonable to preserve restaurants, though he wishes everyone in the county would stay home from Wednesday through Sunday. He added that a safer-at-home order would really be the best way to slow the spread, and that doing nothing is not an option. He later said he felt strongly encouraging takeout is a good stance for the board to take.

He also suggested six people to a table as a restriction and Dr. Buchanan suggested that single families be an exception to that. Dr. O’Brien said he would like to see the requirement to expire in 28 days unless the board extends it. Dr. Shamiyeh pointed out that we know things are going to get worse based on the numbers we’ve already seen and that we need to understand that any impact from this will take time and called it simply an attempt to blunt the impact.

Mr. Roma asked if there might be an eight-person limit, simply as a conversation. Dr. Buchanan said there is no magic number, and no one really knows what line makes a difference, though we know that would help restaurants if they could seat eight. She said she would be in favor of eight as a table limit and it was added as a friendly amendment.

The above amendment was approved with the proposed changes: Restaurants would have a 50% capacity, not 25%. Dining ends at 10 pm. Table seating for non-family groups would be limited to eight per table. The expiration date was changed to 28 days and would begin when the regulation takes effect at 12:01 am on Wednesday morning, November 11/25. Approval was unanimous.

COVID-19 Social Gathering Limitation Regulation

Dr. Souza asked if we could emulate Shelby County in putting together funding sources to help restaurants. Mayor Jacobs said they have investigated grants. He said that $10,000 was the maximum for restaurants in Kentucky and that is not enough to help most. He said we will wait for any new federal money to move through the state.

This regulation limits social gatherings (not in your home, not churches, schools, weddings, funerals, political gatherings, etc) to eight people maximum. Dr. Hurt said this parallels Nashville’s current requirement. Dr. Buchanan said this regulation addresses the fact that there is no hot spot, but that the entire county is a hot spot. She said the current level of deaths is heartbreaking and this might help eventually bring that down.

The amendment was changed to 28 days to make it consistent with the other regulation. Dr. Buchanan said outdoor gatherings are safer, but they are not safe. The previous limit was 25 and that was allowed to expire. Mayor Jacobs said concern has been expressed by those who work with addiction that they gather in groups of more than eight. Mr. Sanders pointed out that those are not social gatherings and are therefore excluded.

Ms. Roma asked if it would apply to a 5K or other races. Dr. Buchanan said her understanding was that it would not include that. Dr. Shamiyeh asked about enforcement and Dr. Buchanan said that would be up to law enforcement.

There was some question regarding clarity and Dr. Buchanan suggested they bring it back Wednesday after some work to make it clearer.

Dr. O’Brien suggested the group not meet on Wednesday, but rather move the meeting to next week. He wondered if perhaps the meetings should return to weekly given the seriousness of the situation. Dr. Shamiyeh asked about the usefulness of weekly meetings as they only have so many options and the information only changes so quickly. Dr. O’Brien said data could be distributed every-other week between meetings and they could continue two-week patterns.

The group agreed to meet December 2, 16 and 30.

Mayor Jacobs thanked the board for listening to Mr. Burleson and for showing flexibility. He asked the public to please follow the guidance the board has put forth.

You may enjoy the full meeting below: