Knox County Board of Health to ask Gov. Lee for statewide mask mandate

Coronavirus

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE)– With the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths continuing to rise, the majority of Knox County Board of Health members feel like something needs to be done on the state level.

The board ended up passing a completely rewritten resolution that would ask Gov. Bill Lee to issue a statewide mask mandate.

Originally, board member Dr. Patrick O’Brien proposed two resolutions to send to the governor’s office: one that would give Knox County Board of Health the authority to issue regulations to surrounding areas; and another that would take residents back to the stay-at-home restrictions from March via Exec. Order 17.

“I think we as the Board of Health need to be realistic and come up with in some way to express to the state government what we feel may be most beneficial to us here in Knoxville, Knox County and the rest of the state,” O’Brien said.

The board decided a statewide mask mandate was the best option.

Board members discussed whether Lee would even agree to the idea of a statewide mandate.

Dr. Jack Gotcher said he was skeptical, based on Lee already issuing PSA’s about the importance of masks, and believing ‘each county in the state has different problems so that they should respond differently.’

“That might’ve been true in March, it might’ve been true in May, but I just don’t think it’s true anymore, because the spread into rural areas is so pervasive that it’s truly a statewide problem,” Gotcher said.

The BOH passed the updated resolution 9-1, with Mayor Glenn Jacobs dissenting.

Before the discussion about the mask mandate, Dr. Martha Buchanan, Executive Director of Knox County Health Department, and Dr. James Shamiyeh, Chief Quality Officer for the University Health System, gave an update of the current status of COVID-19 in the county and statewide.

Buchanan said all the Knox County benchmarks were ‘red’ for the third week in a row.

Remember, KCHD uses the traffic light themed color-coded system to give the public and decision makers an idea of how the county is doing in the pandemic.

Shamiyeh went a little further into what the data was behind those metrics.

“15 days into December, we in the county have already exceeded the entire month of November. So that gives you the idea of what the entire month is going to look like,” Shamiyeh said.

Shamiyeh said the spike a week or two ago was more relate to cold weather and people staying indoors. He said hospitals were just now seeing the up tick from Thanksgiving.

Buchanan also added a resolution for the BOH to discuss and vote on implementing.

She called it the ‘Safer at Home and Business Guidance’ resolution.

The resolution wasn’t a regulation or law, but more so of a strong encouragement to follow the five core actions, with recommendations for residents and businesses to follow.

“The message we want to send is your safer at home. The safest place to be is with your household and at home and encouraging our citizens to stay home as much as possible, reduce unnecessary trips,” Buchanan said.

The resolution passed unanimously with a few amendments. Originally, the resolution encouraged Knox County Schools to cancel extracurricular activities for Spring 2021.

Lisa Wagoner, KCS Health Services Supervisor, did say the extracurricular activities, especially indoors, does impact the number of cases KCS has.

“We’ve had a few clusters for basketball and football and dance team and all kinds,” Wagoner said.

However, a few members pointed out, including Jacobs, that some students need extracurriculars for scholarships.

The resolution was amended to recommend limiting extracurriculars, and enact appropriate safety precautions if they continued.

The BOH also decided to extend the restaurant capacity and curfew restrictions through Jan. 6, limiting restaurant and bar capacity to 50% occupancy and capping table seating at eight people unless they’re from the same household. Dine-in and alcohol service is mandated to stop at 10 p.m.

O’Brien mentioned feedback he had received from industry owners, such as the regulation isn’t fair and the BOH should allow restaurants do the best they can keeping employees and guests safe.

Some board members brought up whether the regulation was actually limiting the spread of COVID-19.

“It’s pretty much impossible to know if it’s been effective,” Buchanan said.

“It’s like the Secret Service. If they’re doing their job, then you don’t know they’re doing their job,” Dr. Maria Hurt said about whether restaurant regulation is working.

Jacobs brought up how some of the concerns the BOH had might be mitigated by UT students being on break until Jan. 20.

Buchanan said the BOH should give the restrictions on restaurants at least another month so they can collect more data and compare the numbers. The BOH passed the extension 9-1, with Jacobs dissenting.

Lastly, Hurt brought up the Knox County Commission’s proposal to switch the BOH’s regulatory role to an advisory, with Buchanan having the sole regulatory powers.

“We are as an entity now as a place where County Commission has drawn up a regulation, a resolution, amendment to disband us, dissolve us. I find that the important thing, the deeper question is to ask why,” Hurt said.

Most of the board seemed to be against the idea, saying that most of them have received nasty messages and blame for what the board implemented.

They wouldn’t want Buchanan to burden all that by herself.

Buchanan said she would also appreciate to not have the sole responsibility, but would do so if the commission decided.

“I appreciate the joint decision making and obviously, if you are advisory, that won’t change, because we’ll still be advising. But I do, it’s nice to have the also the shared responsibility,” Buchanan said.

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