Reopening the economy looks to be phased and possibly different for Shelby County

By , Daily Memphian Published: April 14, 2020 2:59 PM CT

Restarting the economy might not look the same, even from one county to another.

That’s one of the clues from preliminary discussions and comments about the coming ground rules for reopening nonessential businesses during the COVID pandemic.

Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris said he and Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland, along with the mayors of Knox County and Knoxville, talked Tuesday, April 14, with Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee by conference call about the terms of such a reopening.

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“Not to beat a dead horse, but I do think we have some particularly vulnerable populations,” Harris said later. “You’ve heard a lot about nursing homes. You’ve heard a lot about prisoners and detainees. I think that Shelby County – that we are going to continue to be aggressive for a good while yet to make sure that folks in nursing homes have adequate protections, to make sure there are not outbreaks and treatment for those that are detained or in our prisons and other vulnerable groups.”

City chief operating officer Doug McGowen said there have been talks with the mayors of all seven cities in Shelby County as well as county government about what looks to be a push for a uniform reopening of the economy countywide.

“In the coming days, you will see us come together as a team to start looking at what reopening might look like. We are looking at the data,” he said. “It will be a progressive opening of critical functions expanding more businesses into the essential categories and/or with some additional restrictions. But it won’t be a light switch and everything gets suddenly turned back on.”

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On Monday, April 13, Lee extended the state of emergency for Tennessee to the end of April. Harris says he and Strickland have been working with Lee’s administration as well as federal officials on that and other details.

“He expressed his desire to really be in harness with municipal leaders here in Shelby County,” Harris said of Lee.

Those local leaders are working with a model that McGowen said still anticipates the pandemic will reach its highest point in Shelby County in late May or early June.

Earlier this month, Lee put a lot of emphasis on a model that showed the peak for Memphis would be around April 15. 

McGowen pointed out that the model assumed 100% compliance with social distancing measures in setting the April surge date, a percentage the city is not even close to achieving by even the most optimistic data available.

Strickland has also said he would like to see the COVID response testing at least 1,000 people a day for the virus to be able to better gauge who is affected and who isn’t.

Lee talked Monday of a reopening of the statewide economy in which businesses are “reimagined” to operate in a way that will try to prevent a rebound of the virus.

“It’s clear the economy cannot shut down for months on end,” he said. “We need Tennesseans to go back to work, but we need everyone to realize that physical distancing must continue for the foreseeable future.”

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The state’s recovery advisory group is headed by state tourism commissioner Mark Ezell and Lee anticipates “industry-specific” guidance on reopening sectors of businesses.

As Lee spoke in Nashville Monday, President Donald Trump was saying the president has the power to reopen the economy nationwide regardless of state-by-state restrictions and rules and plans. And Trump is looking at the end of April tentatively for that.

U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen says he’s not sure what happens in about two weeks if Trump or Lee try to reopen closed nonessential businesses and restart the economy on May 1.

“It may be some sort of Constitutional crisis,” the Memphis Democrat said Tuesday during a conference call with reporters, referring to Trump’s assertion Monday that he has the authority to do it on his own.

“It looks like he is set to and determined to reopen the economy and get business going,” he said. “We need business going. But at the same time we need to protect the public.”

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Aside from debates about the 10th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that cedes any powers not specifically given to the federal government to states, Cohen questions whether the economy can restart as long as Americans don’t feel safe.

“From what I’ve read and what I’ve seen and heard it doesn’t sound like testing is available to open up and make people feel assured they can go out,” Cohen said. “It didn’t make much sense – what Trump said.”

What Trump said during the two-hour daily briefing Monday at the White House on the subject was: “When somebody’s president of the United States, the authority is total. And that’s the way it’s got to be. It’s total. And the governors know that.”

Several governors immediately disagreed with that interpretation of who can restart the economy and where. Some Republicans have disagreed with Trump on the point.

There is also some debate about whether governors could roll back state of emergency measures set by local governments.

Meanwhile, Cohen said the gauge for what is back to normal is likely relative and not dependent on businesses now closed reopening and people going back to work.

“We’re all vulnerable and we want to get back to normal,” he said. “But we are not going to get back to normal. I don’t see it, until there is a vaccine – a treatment at minimum.”

Short of that, Cohen said he doesn’t see sporting events coming back any time soon.

“Schools might be able to get going next fall. I think that’s a possibility,” he said. “We need a lot of testing and Memphis is definitely relying on the federal government to come through here.”


COVID reopening Lee Harris Doug McGowen Steve Cohen Bill Lee

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Bill Dries

Bill Dries

Bill Dries covers city and county government and politics. He is a native Memphian and has been a reporter for more than 40 years.


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