Officials give holiday warnings, health directive explanations

By , Daily Memphian Updated: November 25, 2020 9:22 AM CT | Published: November 24, 2020 12:38 PM CT

The pandemic message around Thanksgiving has been firm on limiting the size of gatherings and not mixing households. On Tuesday, Nov. 24, the advice from health officials included knowing one’s COVID-19 status. 

“If you intend to gather with people that do not live with you, I encourage all of you to know your status and don’t gather with anybody who does not know for sure that they are COVID-negative,” Doug McGowen, chief operating officer for the City of Memphis, said at Tuesday’s COVID-19 joint task force briefing.

“There’s still time. We have testing going on today. If you get your test by the end of the day, you will know by Thursday morning whether or not you are negative.

“Please, do the right thing,” McGowen said.

The city has evidence for its stance. Over the weekend, it tested 2,623 people in a pre-holiday push to tamp down infections authorities expect after Thanksgiving. 

By Monday afternoon, Nov. 23, results showed 238 tested positive, a more than 9% positivity rate.

“These are people who didn’t think they were sick and won’t be gathering with their family members,” said Tiffany Collins, deputy director of general services for the city.

“If you have to get with people outside your household, use very single precaution available,” Collins said. 

On Thanksgiving Day, when the temperature is expected to be in the 60s, health officials are urging families to celebrate outside, with masks and distancing.

According Shelby County Health Department modeling, more than 500 COVID-19 patients will be hospitalized by Christmas Day, up from 407 late Sunday afternoon, when 90% of regular hospital beds in the county were full.

“It’s going to be a challenge for health care systems,” said Alisa Haushalter, director of the Shelby County Health Department.

“There are insufficient nursing resources across the United States. It is impacting us greatly. We know that nurses are again leaving Shelby County to go to other communities because they’re being offered significant amounts of money to be able to do that,” she said.

Hospitals themselves are being hit with staff quarantines. The Methodist system has 231 employees off work because they are awaiting COVID tests or have tested positive.

“It’s important to note these numbers are approximate and change by the hour,” said Rachel Powers, Methodist senior communications specialist.

The task force, Haushalter said, is working with the hospitals to cover staffing issues, which can cut into elective surgeries.

People in pain don’t want those procedures put off, she said, “which is why we’re really focused on reducing community transmission at the current time so that we can alleviate some of that pressure on the health care systems.”

Health directive issues

New rules in health directive No. 15 issued late Friday, Nov. 20, limit the number of people who can be seated at a table in a restaurant to six, including two children, or four, if they are all adults. 

The health directive says they are all to be from the same household, which has restaurant owners wondering who is going to enforce this.

Opinion: Friday afternoon is no time to adjust rules for handling a pandemic

At Tuesday’s briefing, Haushalter said the restaurants should take guests at their word.

“If a group presents itself as a household, they have to make an assumption that that group is a household,” she said.

Haushalter has clarified to the County Commission that restaurant patrons should wear masks until they are actively eating and drinking at their table, but don’t have mask up between bites or sips of beverages. 

For those who choose to gather in homes after restaurants close at 10 p.m., Haushalter urges caution.

“We do have to urge people to take some personal responsibility,” she said, noting that people who continue drinking and socializing should wear masks and social distance.

“If they have any signs and symptoms of illness, they should stay home or not participate. I really encourage people to consider the impact of their personal choice on others,” she said.

Also, gyms have been at 50% capacity since they were allowed to reopen in May and should have been requiring that everyone inside be masked. officials said.

Health directive No. 15 does not include new masking rules for gyms, Haushalter said.

“However, we continued to receive complaints that people were not masking within gyms, and we do know that gyms are a high-risk setting because they are indoors. People are exhaling more deeply than they typically would because of exercise which increases transmission,” she said.

Enforcement of the rules, including 10 p.m. closings at restaurants and bars, will be done by law enforcement across the county. 

“I want to remind businesses that if you found to be in violation of the health directive, you will be closed automatically for a minimum of 14 days,” said Dr. Bruce Randolph, Health Department’s health officer.

Businesses then will have to submit a plan for how they will correct the violations. In addition to closure, the fine for the offense, a misdemeanor, is up to $2,500, plus businesses can lose their liquor licenses.

COVID statistics

As of Tuesday, Shelby County had a total of 45,952 cases, up 377 from Monday, Nov. 23. Both the seven- and 14-day average is about 340 cases. Shelby County has reported 637 deaths. The reproductive rate is close to 1.3. The disease is doubling now every 42 days, which means a high potential for a holiday surge.

The first of the vaccines, reserved for health care workers, first-responders and long-term care facilities, will arrive in Shelby County after Dec. 15.

The county is slated to receive about 33,000 doses, of which more than 22,000 will to to the Health Department. The rest will be distributed to hospitals.

The county hopes for a 70% vaccination rate, Randolph said.

Utility assistance 

For 1,40o families that already reported having difficulty paying their utility bills, Shelby County government has set aside $258,000, enough to give each a credit of $185 on their bills without further action, said Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris.

In the last task force press conference before Thanksgiving, Lee acknowledged the difficulty of the times.

“Everyone needs to do everything they can to stay safe, but we must be determined to not let the pandemic steal our joy. We hope that the notice that these families will soon receive with respect to their utility bill will be a welcome holiday surprise,” he said.

Haushalter, who took criticism Monday at the County Commission meeting for changes in the new health directive, knows, as a nurse, that crises bring out the best and worst in people.

“When people are under extreme pressure and experience anxiety or other emotional stress, they tend to act that out. So, I do appreciate that when people say things that may be personally offensive or offensive to other professionals.

“I do know there’s a lot of misinformation. I listened very attentively to those who spoke yesterday evening I listened to it again this morning. I do want to hear what people have to say. I do want to understand people’s perspective. But I also know that some of the information is not accurate information.”

She takes that as a challenge for herself, her team and the joint task force “to be as clear as we can about decisions that we’re making; how we make those decisions, and how we are informed to make those decisions.”


Jane Roberts

Jane Roberts

Longtime journalist Jane Roberts is a Minnesotan by birth and a Memphian by choice. She's lived and reported in the city more than two decades. She covers healthcare and higher education for The Daily Memphian.

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