Memphis and Shelby County to reopen Monday

By , Daily Memphian Updated: May 01, 2020 2:04 PM CT | Published: April 30, 2020 12:06 PM CT

Memphis, unincorporated Shelby County and all six of the county’s suburban municipalities will begin reopening from the COVID-19 shutdown next Monday, May 4.

Start of the first phase of the “Back to Business” reopening plan was announced Thursday, the same day Nashville extended its safer at home order until at least May 8 and a day after Shelby County Health Department Director Alisha Haushalter and county Mayor Lee Harris said the trend of coronavirus cases here has stabilized. Both said Wednesday the area was getting close to an opening date.


Your quick list of what can open on Monday


It also comes after a week of visible unrest among suburban mayors who were ready to get things moving and complained that jail testing last weekend tainted an otherwise positive trend. Bartlett Mayor Keith McDonald said Thursday afternoon there was some hopes of opening Friday in conjunction with Gov. Bill Lee’s timetable, but such a move was not possible.

“We had some great discussion,” McDonald said. “I am proud to say, as such a diverse group with ideological and political differences, we were able to just work towards keeping our folks safe and restarting our economy in a safe way.”

The plan’s initial phase will allow restaurants to reopen with 50% capacity, no buffets, and will require paper menus and masks for employees. The first phase also allows nonessential businesses to reopen, also at 50% capacity with masks for employees. Libraries, gyms and places of worship would also reopen at 25% capacity with a mask requirement.

Offices and call centers would have no limits on capacity in the first phase but would be required to maintain 6 feet of social distancing with no shared headsets or similar office equipment.

Hospitals and medical practices would be allowed in the first phase to resume elective procedures that have been prohibited.

Hair and nail salons and spas wouldn’t reopen until the second phase and then likely with capacity restrictions and guidelines developed with those in the businesses.

Movie theaters, other performance venues and sports stadiums would stay closed until the third phase and then reopening would be “subject to regulations regarding size of groups and social distancing,” according to the guidelines. There could be phase 3 gatherings of more than 50 people “if supported by the characteristics of the space and a clear social distancing plan,” the guidelines read.

The same guidelines, with possible considerations of gatherings of more than 50 in phase 3, also apply to bowling alleys and similar recreation areas and festivals as well as parades.

There would be no gatherings of 10 or more people under the first phase of a reopening.

Implementation of each phase is dependent on a 14-day stabilization or drop in confirmed cases that starts anew as a particular phase begins. Even in the third phase, capacity at many reopened businesses would remain at 75%.

“As we said at the beginning of this week, our data was trending in the right direction,” Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland said. “Along with our doctors, we believe it’s time to slowly start opening our economy back up and get Memphians working again. As we have said since the beginning, we will continue to monitor this situation very closely to make sure our citizens remain safe and healthy.”

Strickland later Thursday said all of the medical experts that were part of the task force agreed on a Monday reopening date.

“There is no perfect day,” he said. “All of these are just judgment calls and what we try to do is get as well educated as we can when we make these judgment calls. Once the doctors all kind of talked to each other and went over the data, all agreed that we could go forward with Phase One on Monday. I think it all kind of fell into place at that point.”

The Monday reopening was agreed on, he said, because of the lead time for businesses to prepare if they are part of phase one.

“You’d like to give businesses a little bit more notice because they have to buy supplies and get their personnel together,” Strickland said. “But it’s the best we could do. I’m very happy that all of Shelby County is on the same page with respect to starting phase one.”

But he said the transition from safer at home orders to social distancing mixed with a restart of the economy puts more responsibility on citizens.

“I don’t want people to relax and think that we are back to normal,” he said. “The level of personal responsibility is more important now than it was before. We’re still going to monitor as best we can we just can’t be every where all at one time.”

County Mayor Lee Harris noted the sacrifices of the community during the shutdown.

“As we enter the first phase of the economic recovery, I have to note that members of our community have made serious sacrifices,” Harris said. 

“We have residents who have put their livelihoods and their ability to take care of their families on the line. We have health care employees and other front line workers who have continued to serve through a very tough period of hardship. As we enter Phase 1, we must continue to be vigilant as a community. We must expand our efforts to protect vulnerable groups. And, if there is a significant flare-up, we must be prepared to be honest about it.”

Suburban mayors weighed in as well.

“We, as others, are anxious to get the economy started again,” Bartlett’s McDonald said. “This does not mean that you should let your guard down. Some people will still need to stay at home.”

Added Millington Mayor Terry Jones: “We’ve been working together for weeks on this, and I appreciate the unified effort. I believe this is the best way to move forward, in unity.”

Collierville Mayor Stan Joyner issued a statement directed at those in his community with whom he had spoken.

“I met with our aldermen (Wednesday) and we shared numerous concerns from residents and businesses in the Collierville community,” Joyner said. “Your voices were heard, and we are pleased to announce that the Town of Collierville is doing what is best for Collierville and will be re-opening businesses next week. I appreciate all the efforts of the mayors in Shelby County working together as we move forward.”

The quotes from the various leaders are significant in some cases for what they don’t say and what is emphasized.

Shelby County Health Department Director Alisa Haushalter didn’t specifically address the downward trend in confirmed COVID cases, saying the data in general “has continued to improve, particularly in hospital capacity and testing capacity, both of which continue to expand.”

“Over this next phase, we will need to expand our public health capacity to conduct investigations and aggressively respond to clusters as they emerge,” she said.

Dr. Jon McCullers of the University of Tennessee Health Sciences Center spoke specifically to the number of new cases.

“Based on the data, I believe we have a stable rate of new cases, have seen a decline in the utilization of hospital beds and are now in a steady state with day to day variation in bed utilization,” he said.

Dr. Scott Strome, executive dean of the College of Medicine at UTHSC, says he and McCullers, an infectious disease expert, advised city leaders to take a “very nuanced” approach to reopening

“I think that is what we have. We are fortunate to have really terrific leaders who understand we can’t change the characteristics of the virus itself. We can only change how we respond to it.”

Strome is impressed with the data-driven metrics at the core of the plan, saying a May 4 date is only possible if cases drop or remain stable, hospitalizations follow suit and there is enough testing capacity to monitor the community.

“And yet we know, as you liberalize things, we anticipate there will be an uptick in the number of cases. I don’t think that is a question. We think that will happen,” he said.

At that point, the monitoring must be as thorough as ever, including “making sure that if folks do get the virus, we still have the capacity to treat them.”

Dr. Stephen Threlkeld, who is treating COVID-19 cases at Baptist Memorial Hospital-Memphis, says it will be “extremely important” how systems adapt to reopening.

“I think the most important thing is that we have enough data, so that if we need to pull back, we can do so strategically without slamming the door on the entire city again.

“I think that is what people dread the most and fear the most in terms of the business issue,” he said. “We have to try to strike a balance on the safety from both perspectives. There is a real danger, obviously, in having more disease in the city, but there are also dangers because of the social problems and financial problems being generated by us having to be closed. Neither is trivial.”

He advised caution about “overly endangering” the elderly or people whose health is compromised. “Young people are going to do well likely whether we open things up or not. We just need to make sure that what we are doing protects those people who might not do well the very best we can.”

Strome is concerned that people will be so relieved to see May 4 in the top line of the order that they won’t read the details. 

“It is not reopening Memphis. That’s the take-home message. If people started to go out and resume their pre-COVID lives, I think that would be a catastrophe.”

Arlington Mayor Mike Wissman, who was the first in the coalition of suburban mayors to go public with his concerns about delaying a reopening, said it was the mayors who announced the reopening.

“The Health Department plays a vital role in our community, but we as elected leaders have to look at the overall health of our entire community,” Wissman said. “Our citizens are crying for help on so many levels, and we need to help them on every level possible by re-opening with guidelines.”

The COVID-19 pandemic caused the local leaders to close down many non-essential businesses and forced restaurants to rely on takeout orders.

“Looks like I’m opening Monday,” said Justin LaMance, operator of four CrossFit Hit & Run gyms from Downtown to Collierville. “I didn’t think our 14-day period had gone by yet. I was thinking I had a month to get ready, so we’re going to be scrambling all weekend.” 

LaMance said city rules on gyms – limiting capacity to 25% in the first phase – will require him to drastically reduce class sizes and offer more classes each day. CrossFit training combines exercises such as pushups, pullups, situps and squats with weight training and aerobic exercises.

“Really it’s just people who like to exercise and hang out with other people,” LaMance said.

“We’re pretty pumped to be in phase one. We’re ready to roll,” LaMance said.

Thursday’s announcement was in contrast to Monday, when all the mayors appeared at a noon briefing and were prepared to announce an opening date. But a spike last weekend, primarily because of the targeted areas such as 201 Poplar, stalled the plans.

Since then, leaders -- particularly the suburban mayors -- have emphasized that the jail numbers should not be counted as part of the regular community trends and there was no reason to delay the Back to Business plan further. The 14-day trend was slated to run through early next week.


Shelby County reopening date ‘very close’ but still vague as suburbs grow restless


Along with the unique coalition of elected leaders and public health officials within Shelby County, the decision to open included consultation with local leaders in DeSoto County, Mississippi, and West Memphis, Arkansas – two states with different standards for reopening.

Ultimately, the coalition held together despite the visible strains earlier.

In addition to the weekend jail testing that scuttled an earlier reopening announcement, there was a big jump in the number of people tested.

That followed a week of testing numbers that showed a decline in the growth of new cases and health care industry leaders saying their facilities could handle what was projected to be a lower peak for the pandemic locally than the first projections in March.

A statewide ban on elective medical procedures that followed a decision in Memphis to cancel those procedures also began to have an impact starting two weeks ago. Several of the city’s major health care institutions have furloughed employees and cut executive pay to make up for the revenue lost from the ban.

Hotels and Memphis Tourism, meanwhile, were still seeking clarification Thursday about how restrictions will affect full-service hotels that plan to reopen their restaurants and bars. There’s also a question about when tourist attractions can reopen.

Hotels have stayed open during the shutdown as essential businesses, with only a couple closing. Will they have to implement screening measures such as taking temperatures of incoming visitors, in order to reopen restaurants and bars?

“The Peabody has nine doors. How are they going to check temperatures with nine doors?” Memphis Tourism president and CEO Kevin Kane said.

“We’re still trying to figure out when attractions can open,” Kane said.

Graceland, the Memphis Zoo, music museums and other attractions have not been called out in the city’s reopening framework.

“Since we don’t have any events, if tourists were to come here, there’s nothing for them to do but eat,” Kane said.

Memphis International Airport remained open as an essential business, but airlines reduced flights and airport shops and restaurants closed as traffic dried up. With the economy beginning to reopen, airport officials expect passengers to gradually increase and airlines to restore service as the public’s comfort with air travel returns, spokesman Glen Thomas said.

Doug McGowen, chief operating officer for the City of Memphis said in comments before the announcement was made that interests have remain aligned in spite of tensions.


How the 38118 ZIP code became a coronavirus ‘hot spot’


“I look at what people do rather than what could possibly happen. And so far, we have been aligned,” McGowen said Thursday during a recording of the WKNO Channel 10 program “Behind The Headlines.”

“We’ve been at it for six weeks now. … We’ve had this coalition of the willing who are coming together to make sure we have the best possible outcome for the Memphis and Shelby County region,” McGowen said.

The nine employees of The Shopping Center Group, a broker of retail space, will return to their East Memphis office next week in two shifts so personnel will have plenty of room to stay six feet apart.

About half will work from the office at 5101 Wheelis on Mondays and Wednesday, and the other half come in on Tuesdays and Thursdays, managing partner Danny Buring said.

And as they’ve been doing for six weeks now, everyone will work from home on Fridays.

In the past two days, as questioning of what the health department statistics and data mean for the economy went public, some of the elected leaders also began to emphasize that the decision was more than a health department directive. It would, they said, ultimately be up to the mayors with advice from the county’s public health agency and its directives playing a key role.

“What we’re trying to do here is to have everybody look at the same data and come to the same conclusion and make their decision together so that they use their collective authority for what we would say is a comprehensive approach to opening Shelby County and the area immediately around us,” McGowen said.

He said giving a green light to a reopening wasn’t a matter of taking a vote.

“At the end of the day, this is a decision that the health officers and the elected officials have to make,” McGowen said. “There is no formula that says one plus one equals open. You really have to look at the data and determine – having balanced all of the factors that are associated with this – is it safe and prudent to take the next step and move into phase one. There is no easy answer to that. There is no rote answer to that.”

Editor’s Note: The Daily Memphian is making our coronavirus coverage accessible to all readers — no subscription needed. Our journalists continue to work around the clock to provide you with the extensive coverage you need; if you can subscribe, please do

Sports editor Clay Bailey and staff reporters Bill Dries, Jane Roberts, Abigail Warren, Wayne Risher and Tom Bailey contributed to this story.

Topics

coronavirus Mayor Jim Strickland Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris Alisa Haushalter suburban mayors

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