Dates and Data: Uneasy coexistence in local reopening plan

By  and , Daily Memphian Updated: May 13, 2020 6:05 AM CT | Published: May 12, 2020 9:05 PM CT

In the coming days, the eight mayors within Shelby County as well as local health experts will consider the next phase of reopening the Memphis-area economy.

The end of this week will mark 14 days since the first phase of the countywide “Back to Business” plan began.

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Whatever decisions are made in Phase 2 will likely be easier than the reopening’s first phase, which at times seemed to be fracturing the alliance among the mayors around dates and data.

Across the country, “dates and data” have become the mantra for weighing a path toward a new normal of post-pandemic life in America. Elected leaders and health experts in different places have taken different paths, with elected officials making the ultimate call.

That’s not what ultimately happened in Shelby County, according to Arlington Mayor Mike Wissman.

<strong>Mike Wissman</strong>

Mike Wissman

The mayors favored a May 1 reopening while the Shelby County Health Department wanted it delayed until mid-May.

“The issue seemed to be with the data that the Health Department had to report,” Wissman said, offering his opinion. “It was ever-changing from more tests.” 

The last week of April, the county health department said the area was in about day 11 of a downward trend. For the suburban mayors, that meant a May 1 target date for reopening.

However, county Health Department officials did not want to specify a date. Wissman said the mayors pressed for a date to tell the public so businesses could prepare to reopen.

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“We need a date,” mayors pleaded, according to Wissman. “It’s a lot easier to close a business down than open back up.”

The frustration came as the mayors were trying to understand the health department’s data-driven decisions and process.

“The mayors were not having any say on when (the first phase) would start,” Wissman said.

Then, the weekend of April 26, there was a spike in confirmed cases as the testing effort expanded to nursing homes and jails. That included the Shelby County Jail, where 70% of the 266 pretrial detainees tested were confirmed as COVID-19 patients.

Wissman went on “The Ben Ferguson Show” and said May 1 was the target reopening date.

“We’re stuck in a holding pattern,” he said on the WREC radio program. “My goal, and I’m still under the assumption that we should be able to open May 1. ... We still feel like we are in that 14-day window.”

Memphis was set to reopen this week, until weekend spike in positive cases

By the next day, Thursday, April 30, the mayors were pushing harder for a date.

“Every day was more and more frustrating,” Wissman said, noting the health department wanted to wait until mid-May to reopen.

Shelby County Health Department Director Alisa Haushalter agrees there was some back and forth within the “Back to Business” working group of which she, along with the mayors and their attorneys, is a member.

“The health department didn’t necessarily agree to move forward with opening things without a lot of discussion,” Haushalter said Monday, May 11. “So, in the end, we came to consensus and did that collectively.”

Bartlett Mayor Keith McDonald said the municipal mayors want to align themselves with Gov. Bill Lee’s plans as much as possible. The state’s “Tennessee Pledge” reopening schedule is for 89 of the state’s 95 counties that have local health departments that report directly to the state.

Shelby County is not one of those 89 counties and its health department has more autonomy than the 89 connected with the state. That has proven to be a critical factor at several points in the pandemic.

McDonald said the suburban mayors were unified in wanting to align with the state plan, and, as result, there were numerous “frank conversations.”

“We try to be as unified as we can,” McDonald said. “Whenever you’re dealing with policymakers from all these different jurisdictions, you can expect to have deep conversations. … Different things matter in different communities more than others.”

He said some misunderstandings may have led to unnecessary worry the mayors were no longer unified.

“There is no division in our desire to be uniform, so we don’t confuse citizens,” McDonald said.

Before the consensus, though, Wissman said he and other mayors believed mid-May was unreasonable. The mayors agreed to try to align with the state’s May 1 date. Some had talked to infectious disease doctors, who said Shelby County was in a 14-day downward trend. 

“All eight (Memphis, Shelby County and six suburban) mayors were focused on establishing a balance between public health and commerce, with a priority based on data from multiple sources,” Germantown Mayor Mike Palazzolo said by email.

That focus wasn’t meant to undermine the significance of the health department’s data and direction, Palazzolo said.

“All eight mayors were looking for guidance and a directive from the Shelby County Health Department,” Palazzolo wrote in his email.

That’s what the process for Phase 2 will look like.

Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland has always leaned heavily on the side of data — repeatedly saying “data and recommendations from medical experts” would drive decisions. 

As distances began to emerge in setting the exact date for a business reopening, Strickland maintained the elected leaders were together.

In Tuesday’s daily email update on the pandemic, Strickland said the numbers that made possible a May 4 start to the reopening remain constant as the two-week mark nears.

“That being said, we will not see the results of us starting to proceed into a next phase until 10-14 days into the current phase because according to the doctors, that’s the incubation period for the virus,” he said.

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Strickland added that he and other leaders will monitor the data through the weekend to decide on Phase 2 of reopening.

Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris, whose administration includes the health department, rejects the assumption that Phase 2 reopenings automatically begin May 18 because it’s two weeks from the start of Phase 1.

<strong>Lee Harris</strong>

Lee Harris

“I don’t know if we have very calendar-specific commitments. We said we will review the data in 14-day increments and then make decisions based on what the data says,” Harris said last week. “The 14 days is a frame of reference for looking at the data. It’s not necessarily that everything has to completely change every 14 days.”

As the mayors and county Health Department talked through a potential standoff over Phase 1, they announced on Thursday, April 30 that they would reopen May 4.

Some mayors believed the health department would let its countywide directive run out May 3 at midnight.

“If Shelby County Health Department decides they don’t want to put directives out, (Shelby County and the municipalities) fall under the state,” Wissman said. “We thought we were going to be under the state directive. So then that started the firestorm.”

Lee: lives and livelihoods not an ‘either/or’ situation

About the same time, Gov. Bill Lee announced hair salons and barber shops could open before the second phase. Many mayors were receiving heat from salon owners who were ready to reopen.

“The governor’s move brought it back to the head,” McDonald said, referring to the issue of whether Shelby County would join the state’s reopening plan or keep its own.

Arlington and Collierville — with the belief state guidelines would soon serve them — went ahead and told salons and barbershops they could reopen their hair care services.

It appeared Arlington and Collierville were bucking the county. But Wissman said his decision was based on the belief Shelby County would not renew its directive.

Haushalter was also adjusting to the governor’s order, incorporating that into a new local health department directive.

“The 'Back to Business’ plan is what we’ve all agreed to,” Haushalter said last week. “There are times when the governor has preempted local decision-making and clearly we will have to follow the direction of the governor.”

But for Shelby County, which is one of the six counties in the state with an independent health department, there is still some local autonomy. And the plan was to keep a local health directive in place.

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“The state moved personal service business from Phase 2 into Phase 1 and allowed them to open,” Collierville Mayor Stan Joyner said. “The majority of the municipalities in the county wanted them to be able to open.”

<strong>Stan Joyner</strong>

Stan Joyner

Joyner, like other suburban leaders, said his decision was based on the state’s order, which he understood would be the direction for the county.

The May 3 county directive allowed barber and beauty shops, but not other “close contact” businesses likes spas and tattoo parlors, to open.

“It just kinda solved itself,” Joyner said.

“It looked like we were all falling apart, but we were heading in the direction of letting the health department take over,” Wissman said. “We talked Monday (May 4) and all agreed.”

A May 4 release from Germantown said salons could offer all services when they opened May 6. It later issued clarification saying only hair-care services could be offered under the county directive. Palazzolo said that was a minor miscommunication issue, and he echoed McDonald’s statements. He and Germantown’s emergency operations team remain committed to the unified efforts.

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“In my 16 years of elected service, I have never witnessed more respect and sharing of perspective among political leaders working toward a common goal of public health safety,” the Germantown mayor said by email.

“This was a common problem that affected us all,” Joyner said. “I think that was the impetus to come together to do something.”

It is not the first time the municipalities have worked together, but this was the “most grave circumstance,” Joyner said.

“I’m proud of everybody for agreeing to work together,” he said. “It’s made a different situation a little bit more palatable. But when you have that many Type A personalities working on the same committee, you’re gonna have disagreements. That’s just a fact of nature.”

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Alisa Haushalter Stan Joyner Mayor Mike Wissman Keith McDonald Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris
Abigail Warren

Abigail Warren

Abigail Warren is a lifelong resident of Shelby County and a graduate of the University of Memphis. She has worked for several local publications and covers the suburbs for The Daily Memphian.

Bill Dries

Bill Dries

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


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