Special Report

A mission in Memphis and beyond: Locals create unified front to fight virus

By , Special to The Daily Memphian Updated: March 27, 2020 11:07 AM CT | Published: March 27, 2020 4:00 AM CT

The first counterattack last week seemed uncoordinated among Shelby County’s eight mayors, all fighting to stave off an unseen enemy that ignores political boundaries.

In those opening days of a war footing against COVID-19, Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland, Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris and the six suburban mayors seemed almost to stagger the timing of what would be similar emergency declarations.

State of emergency: Strickland closes restaurants, bars, gyms

Strickland first, followed by Harris and the others, issued orders closing restaurant dining rooms, bars and gyms, and then the gathering places like movie theaters and bowling alleys, and finally telling all citizens with jobs deemed nonessential to just stay at home starting 6 p.m. Tuesday, March 24.

Restaurants, gyms, theaters ordered to close by county mayor, suburban leaders

“Yes, I was first,” Strickland said. Asked how difficult it was to give the initial order for restaurants, bars and gyms to close, he said, “It was very hard to make that call.

“But it wasn’t nearly as hard on me as it has been on the business owners and workers who were losing their jobs. We’ve had thousands of Memphians lose their jobs in the last two weeks. We’ve had hundreds of small-business owners negatively affected.”

<strong>Jim Strickland</strong>

Jim Strickland

But the coordination and collaboration among local governments has improved so much this week that even the blunt-talking dean of Shelby County’s mayors, Bartlett Mayor Keith McDonald, told The Daily Memphian:

“I’ve been mayor 18 years and an alderman before that. It’s the most unified effort in the time period I’ve been involved in local government. It’s the most unified effort I’ve ever seen, where people have the same goal and we are all discussing how we are going to get there.”

The goal he referred to is promoting — or forcing — social distancing to slow the spread of the coronavirus so that area hospitals do not become overwhelmed with infected residents. Generally, there are to be no groupings of more than 10 people, and citizens should stay at least six feet apart.

“Everybody has been very kind to each other and giving appropriate respect for their point of view and their thoughts,” McDonald said from his kitchen table.

He and his wife, Patty, self-isolated themselves for 14 days after being exposed to the virus while attending a Washington, D.C., conference.

Daily task force teleconference

The daily teleconference for local governments’ overarching COVID-19 task force starts at 8 a.m. and is led by City of Memphis Chief Operating Officer Doug McGowen with the joint leadership of Strickland, Harris and Shelby County chief administrative officer Dwan Gilliom.

On the line are representatives of about a dozen sub-task forces involving a mix of city, county and nonprofit officials. And starting this week, suburban mayors have been participating.

During the calls, each of the sub-task force leaders gives a brief report — brief, because the meeting is limited to an hour — of where things stand with his or her respective areas.

Those areas comprise: Transportation; public works and engineering; firefighting; information and planning; mass care/emergency assistance/temporary housing/human services; logistics; public health and medical services; agriculture and natural services (food); energy; public safety and security; business and infrastructure in cooperation with the Greater Memphis Chamber; external affairs (communications); and animal care.

“The suburban cities have been coming on board this week,” Strickland said of the daily teleconference. “I think all of them took part this morning.”

Much of the discussion Thursday morning, March 26, centered on how to serve the homeless during the pandemic and how to relieve the Shelby County Health Department from the flood of telephone calls it is receiving.

“So, we’re working to transfer calls to our 2-1-1 operation, which is normally for social service and information calls,” Strickland said. “It’s just a technical challenge and we’re working on that.”

Leadership styles

Ask Strickland and Harris to describe their own leadership styles, and their two responses are variations on similar themes. 

Strickland says he surrounds himself with “good people,” relies on experts’ opinions, makes a decision and moves forward.

Harris describes himself as a collaborative leader who focuses more on crediting and promoting others than seeking credit for himself.

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Just before COVID-19 commanded everyone’s full focus, Strickland said he was tackling such issues as hiring more police officers, reducing violent crime, and working with the General Assembly to replace revenue lost by the elimination of the Hall Income Tax.

Before the pandemic hit, Harris was mounting a campaign to deal with crumbling schools and pushing for a new high school for Frayser, working to increase veteran services and trying to bridge a budget gap.

But in recent days, Harris’ focus has been so pointed at COVID-19 that he had to think a moment to remember what he had been working on.

“We are almost all kind of wartime generals at this point,” he said of himself and his fellow mayors.

Working together

One example of how the county’s eight governments are cooperating is the way they are sharing a donation of 14,000 N95 masks, the most coveted of the facial protective equipment during the pandemic.

Local manufacturer Radians donated the respirator masks.

Memphis, by far the largest of the local governments, will use 7,000 of the masks for its police, firefighters and COVID-19 testing sites. And the county government will receive the other 7,000, sharing those with the much smaller six county municipalities.

“So everyone gets their proportional share of it,” Strickland said. “We want everyone to be safe.”

The sense of unity described by Bartlett’s McDonald is “absolutely true,” Strickland said.

<strong>Lee Harris</strong>

Lee Harris

“Mayor McDonald is the dean of local mayors. He’s personally taking part in these calls and his experience is really helpful,” Strickland said.

“And the cooperation is growing exponentially each and every single day. Police and fire departments are working with each other. Obviously, the virus knows no boundaries.”

Harris also agreed with McDonald’s assessment about unity.

“You know him; he’s blunt,” Harris said of the Bartlett mayor.

“I think we all have a relatively high level of trust. Even one’s I’ve had ideological differences with in the past, we talk,” Harris said. “I think we are all supportive of this mission to try as best we can to keep the community safe.”

Getting a step ahead

What happens to city services if a critical number of a department’s workers is forced to stay home because of exposure or infection? Strickland said he’s been planning and prioritizing for that.

For example, solid waste must continue to be collected one way or another. Otherwise, garbage piles would create even more health problems.

“But maybe recycling has to take a backseat for some period of time,” Strickland said. “That’s the kind of planning that’s coming on right now. Hopefully, we never have to use it.”

A legal question

City attorneys are even researching for what can and cannot be done legally were a higher-level government to order an action Memphis leaders do not agree with.

For example, President Donald Trump has indicated that if conditions are right, he would like to end social distancing by Easter, April 12.

“I would base my decision on the local medical experts and their scientific opinion,” Strickland said. “As a Christian. there would be nothing that would excite me more than going to church that Sunday morning with a full church. … But from what doctors are telling me, that is not realistic.

“We’re researching that issue right now. The federal government is above the state government on health issues and the county government is above us. So we are researching if a higher government prohibited us from doing Safer at Home,” he said, referring to his state-of-emergency declaration that citizens in nonessential jobs remain at home.

Harris and the suburbs

Asked whom he considers is the local leader of the COVID-19 response, Collierville Mayor Stan Joyner responded, “It probably starts with Mayor Harris. He is the mayor of the entire county, although so much of the county has a local municipality that provides the leadership as well.”

Harris sees much of his job as being supportive of Shelby County’s seven municipalities. Even though he and Strickland both have the “mayor” title, Harris said his leadership role is substantially different.

“I work with a lot of elected officials that are in control of their own distinct power centers,” Harris said.

For example, one reason Strickland can more quickly declare a state of emergency is that he oversees the Memphis Police Department, which plays a big role in the emergency. But the Shelby County sheriff is elected, meaning it takes Harris extra time to communicate and reach an understanding with the sheriff before declaring an emergency, Harris said.

“Even if we start at the same time as (Memphis), I’ve got to talk to some other elected officials and get their feedback,” he said.

“We’re building an airplane in the air and doing it on a stopwatch. We’ve got a minute to build it,” Harris said.

Joyner, the Collierville mayor, praised Harris’s leadership.

“I think it’s very well coordinated,” Joyner said of the inter-government response to COVID-19. “… We have been on conference calls every two or three days beginning last week.”

One example of the collaboration has been the similar way all the cities’ emergency declarations and orders have been written.

The documents cannot be identical because of differences among cities. For example, some do not have a movie theater that would be ordered closed, Joyner said.

But generally, the orders are complementary enough that, say, a Collierville resident who drives to Memphis to work is not confused about what is and is not open.

The emergency orders would be weakened if a resident of a city that closed its restaurants’ dining-in areas could drive to an adjacent city that allowed restaurant dining, Joyner said.

The collaboration among local governments seems to be spreading, much like a virus. 

This week, Harris said, he had a teleconference call with Tipton, Lauderdale and Fayette county officials.

“They wanted to be partners,” he said.


COVID-19 Jim Strickland Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris Keith McDonald Stan Joyner
Tom Bailey

Tom Bailey

Tom Bailey retired in January as a business reporter at The Daily Memphian, and after 40 years in journalism. A Tupelo, Mississippi, native, he graduated from Mississippi State University. He has lived in Midtown for 36 years.


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