Health officials: New restrictions a compromise to head off holiday surge

By , Daily Memphian Updated: November 24, 2020 6:48 AM CT | Published: November 23, 2020 4:18 PM CT

On the first day of new countywide COVID-19 restrictions Monday, Nov. 23, the burning question was when to mask and unmask in a restaurant.

“The takeaway message is the mask should be on except when you are eating and drinking,” Shelby County Health Department Director Alisa Haushalter said. “But not necessarily taking it on and off. Exercise some common sense and work around.”

Some have interpreted the mask rule as requiring masking between bites and sips. That’s not what Haushalter said is intended.

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With several dozen critics of the new measures imposed by her department sitting behind her at the Shelby County Commission, Haushalter said the newest health directive in the pandemic is a compromise designed to help curb the spread of COVID-19 ahead of an expected end-of-year surge.

In the case of restaurants, she said many customers at restaurants were taking off their masks immediately upon entering and not putting them back on until they left. And the original restriction was meant to require masks other than when eating and drinking.

“We really have to be prepared for the end of the year,” Shelby County Health Officer Dr. Bruce Randolph of the Health Department told the commission. “Any interventions that we do now are to reduce the anticipated surge that will come on Christmas Day and thereafter.”

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Randolph said the new measures are “the least restrictive action that can be taken at this moment given the extent of the pandemic and the rise in numbers short of going back and short of closing.”

The restrictions reduce businesses to 50% of their capacity, require them to close no later than 10 p.m. and require masks whenever customers are not eating or drinking. They also limit the size of groups dining together to no more than six at a table and they must live in the same household.

Commissioners also were told Monday that the first doses of a vaccine will likely arrive in Shelby County after Dec. 15 with first responders at the greatest risk of exposure being the top priority followed by other first responders and then assisted care facilities.

The Health Department expects to get 22,425 doses in the first round with other smaller amounts for hospitals. The vaccine will be free regardless of insurance coverage.

Haushalter told commissioners use of a field hospital at the old Commercial Appeal building, 495 Union, could depend on what health officials are seeing in other cities where there are troubling indications.

“The acuity of the patients is too great to use alternate care sites,” she said of other cities being observed.

The field hospital would probably be used for low-acuity patients to keep the more critical cases of the virus in the intensive care units at the city’s major hospitals.

Haushalter said the state, which runs the facility, is telling her to not anticipate the field hospital opening before the end of the year.

Critics of the new health directive complained to the commission about the most basic mask requirements.

“We are not Muslims,” Diana Crenshaw said. “We do not need to have it forced upon us. We have to be able to live our own lives.”

That specific comment drew a rebuke from County Commissioner Tami Sawyer, who also heard other comments that to her were “a lot of dog whistling.”

“If you call yourself a Christian but then you say that wearing a mask is a Muslim thing – that is offensive,” Sawyer said.

“What we are struggling with is a lack of community,” she said. “We all have to make sacrifices in this pandemic for us to get our numbers lower. We all have family members or friends that we can’t see. Our lives have changed.”

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Several other speakers cited a low death rate from COVID-19 that is based on counting only direct deaths from the virus.

“There are no hard numbers showing anything,” said Michael Westmoreland of Germantown, who owns six restaurants. “The new directives are to keep people out of the restaurants. … If they go out, they are putting themselves in danger of their own accord.”

Health experts from Haushalter to the nation’s top medical expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, have rejected that as wrong and an oversimplification. The virus triggers underlying and existing medical conditions that on their own would not lead to the death of someone at that time without the presence of the virus.

Most of those speaking were business owners who showed up in enough numbers to warrant the commission enforcing its social distancing measures. Some in what was a standing-room-only crowd at first had to stand outside the chambers where they could hear the meeting before being called to come in and speak.

Elaine Clayton of Lakeland, who owns a Downtown business, said several members of her family had been diagnosed with COVID-19.

“None of them got it from a restaurant or small business,” she said. “None of them died from COVID.”

She saw the greater problem as the effects of social distancing.

“There is so much depression. There is so much suicide,” Clayton said. “We as business owners are doing everything we can. Let us be able to help our children. Help our friends.”

Commissioner Van Turner termed the critics “hypocritical” for saying they wanted to be heard but then walking out en masse as Sawyer spoke from an online connection.

Turner said he understood their concerns. “But it seems like it’s one-sided,” he said.

“There are concerns this group doesn’t speak of, but there are other concerns in this group beyond what they see and what they are concerned about,” he said. “I would hope they would feel the entirety of this humanity.”

To Turner, that includes the deaths of Black citizens in police custody.

“I don’t see these folks come down when people are talking about the senseless deaths of Black youths in our nation,” he said. “I often feel that it might be safer for Black boys to stay in.”

Commissioner Amber Mills said the controversy amounts to “personal responsibility” – the same phrase Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee has used repeatedly to explain why he will not impose a statewide mask requirement.

Earlier in the day, all seven of the county’s mayors put out a joint statement to “urge all the citizens of Shelby County to comply with these restrictions so that no further restrictive measures and closures become necessary.”

“Working together as citizens and business partners in Shelby County to support the health department’s directives is essential to keeping all residents safe while balancing the concerns of our local economy,” the statement reads. “We, as the mayors of our Shelby County communities, ask for your support and renewed effort to comply with these rules in order to keep our community health and economically vibrant.”

The group of mayors have also been working on a regional mask mandate for West Tennessee in lieu of a statewide mask mandate.

Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris has said he doesn’t believe Lee will ever make such a mandate despite calls for it from urban and suburban leaders as well as Democrats and Republicans.

The regional effort relies on mayors across west Tennessee enacting their own restrictions county by county.


Shelby County Commission Shelby County Health Department Alisa Haushalter
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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