Herrington: When it comes to coronavirus in Memphis, ‘Tennessee’ only means so much

By , Daily Memphian Updated: April 24, 2020 4:06 PM CT | Published: April 24, 2020 3:58 PM CT
Chris Herrington
Daily Memphian

Chris Herrington

Chris Herrington covers the Memphis Grizzlies and writes about Memphis culture, food, and civic life. He lives in the Vollintine-Evergreen neighborhood of Midtown with his wife, two kids, and two dogs.

A few headlines I’ve noticed this week from different Memphis media outlets, including, in one case, this one:

Restaurant dining rooms reopen in Tennessee on Monday

Tennessee gov: Restaurants, retail stores can open next week

‘Tennessee Pledge’: Gov. Bill Lee outlines new guidelines for businesses opening next week

Governor to allow restaurants and retail stores to open next week with social distancing

Coronavirus in Tennessee updates: Gov. Lee details reopening strategy; pledge for businesses 

None of these are wrong, of course, but I yearned to append an asterisk to each: *Does not apply to Memphis.* 

Hopefully readers of local publications knew better, but it’s easy to get confused: One national roundup of state-by-state “reopen” plans I read on Friday noted that Tennessee’s order would be lifted on Monday. It did not mention that this change does not apply to six counties, which include the state’s four largest cities and which constitute roughly 40% of the state’s population. In Memphis, the city’s “safer at home” order will stay in place through at least May 5. 

Lee — to his credit — didn’t alter an order for Tennessee, but rather for small-town and rural Tennessee. It’s admittedly harder to get that in a headline.

There are worse things than confusion. Better that than the clarity of a true one-size-fits-all, state-wide policy. Just ask any friends in Atlanta. 

Still, this disconnect underscores a constant factor of Memphis life, perhaps now more pressing than usual: To paraphrase Texas songwriter Joe Ely, we may walk the streets of Memphis, but we’ll have you understand, Tennessee is not entirely the state we’re in.

Vertically stubby, more than 500 miles wide and pointy at each end, stretching from the Mississippi Delta into Appalachia, Tennessee is one of America’s odder geographic constructs.

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It’s right there on our flag: Three stars representing three “grand divisions” that would probably function more coherently as three states. 

In regard to state governance, Tennessee matters. But so much that impacts our lives has no regard for borders: Culture, commerce (for the most part), pollution and most definitely a communicable disease like COVID-19. 

On the day after Lee announced his decision not to renew the state-wide “safer at home” order, this came across my social media feed:


Per the New York Times’ COVID tracking site, DeSoto County has the third most cases in Mississippi and Crittenden County has the third most cases in Arkansas. Neither is in Tennessee but each, effectively, is in Memphis. 

State borders don’t mean anything to a virus

It was right of Lee to grant Tennessee’s major cities self-determination in regard to coronavirus policy. But to the degree that Memphis is a metro area rather than merely a municipality — and in regard to public health, that probably matters as much — our self-determination is limited.

“The novel coronavirus doesn’t recognize borders,” Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris said at Monday’s Shelby County Joint Task Force briefing. “That’s why it’s so important for all the municipal leaders in this community and across the state to be on the same page.”

He also acknowledged concerns about regional pressure on Memphis hospitals due to hospital closures in rural West Tennessee, in the event that cases start to spike again.

But this isn’t just about other municipalities in Shelby County or medical access in rural West Tennessee. Like Lee said, the virus doesn’t recognize borders. 

City mayors of Memphis, Nashville, Chattanooga and Knoxville have been communicating throughout this process, and that’s good. But Oxford and Little Rock are closer to Memphis than Nashville. Birmingham and Jackson, Mississippi, are closer than Chattanooga. St. Louis is closer than Knoxville, and Atlanta and New Orleans are roughly the same distance. 

A week or so ago, on an episode of “Behind the Headlines,” Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland noted that West Memphis has been participating in the Shelby County task force meetings. Representatives from DeSoto County? 

“We’ve invited them to the task force. I’m not sure they’ve participated yet,” he said.

In the absence of a coherent national plan to navigate the pandemic, a lot of the decision-making and responsibility is weighing on the states, and in Tennessee the state government has done well to yield more local control to the cities. (They could consider this in some other areas, too.)

Strickland has already extended Memphis’ “safer at home” order through at least May 5, and has suggested that it could go longer. Restaurants across the Mississippi border but well within the Memphis metro are set to loosen restrictions on Monday. That will be a more tangible confusion.

As long as Memphis gets to carve its own path relative to Tennessee writ large, what Lee does for the non-urban areas of the state will matter to Memphis, but it will likely matter less than what Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves does, and may not matter more than what Gov. Asa Hutchinson does in Arkansas. 

As Memphis navigates its way through coronavirus in the coming weeks and months and maybe longer, it doesn’t really have the choice of merely doing so as a city in Tennessee. It will have to do so as a tri-state regional hub. Here’s hoping Arkansas and Mississippi will appreciate this reality.



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