Knox Co. mayor talks pandemic policies ahead of health board power shift

Local News

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) – The future of health restrictions in Knox County will be determined by Knox County Health Department Director Dr. Martha Buchanan beginning next Tuesday.

County Mayor Glenn Jacobs said this is the county law department’s interpretation of state law and the recent change by County Commission.

“That could potentially change. I’m not sure,” Jacobs said.

Many county mayors across Tennessee have let restrictions expire, while others never implemented any. However, for six counties, including Knox, those decisions never came from mayors. In fact, prior to the County Commission’s change, they were set by the health board.

Commission’s move to strip the board of its regulation-setting power left many wondering who would be making the decisions for Tennessee’s third-largest county surrounding mask wearing, capacity limits, and curfews. County Law Director David Buuck explained in an email Thursday Gov. Bill Lee’s Executive Order No. 77 gives regulatory authority to the health departments of the six counties.

Buchanan has pledged to follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance for curbing the spread of COVID-19, whether that’s in the form of a recommendation or regulation.

The County Health Department director serves under the supervision of the mayor, so will Jacobs be able to intervene, if he disagrees? We asked.

“That is a very difficult scenario because under the current interpretation she’s under the authority of the state, in which case that authority supersedes mine. So, I can certainly give her direction, and what my opinion is, but that’s really about it in that case because I’m not the boss,” Jacobs said.

Jacobs believes the regulatory authority would revert back to him, the county’s top elected official, if Gov. Lee allows the executive order to expire April 28. Knox County would likely see many immediate changes if/when that transition occurs. When asked how different things would have looked, had he been at the helm of health policy decision-making like other county mayors, he said “they would have looked different.”

“I would not have implemented many of the restrictions that took place,” Jacobs said. “I just simply would not have done that.”

When asked if there would be a mask mandate in the county today, if it were his decision, he replied “No. no there would not.”

Jacobs attributes vague legal language to what he calls “clunky and controversial” government throughout the pandemic and thinks an update to emergency powers statutes at the state and local level is needed.

“There’s just a lot of ambiguity in those … when you have a crisis like this happen … then suddenly they become very important,” he said.

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