Herrington: Strickland’s leadership encouraging as coronavirus hits home for Memphis

By , Daily Memphian Updated: March 23, 2020 6:34 AM CT | Published: March 23, 2020 4:00 AM 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.

Editor’s note: Due to the serious public health implications associated with COVID-19, The Daily Memphian is making our coronavirus coverage accessible to all readers — no subscription needed.

Places in Memphis where “social distancing” is not really an option: Friday or Saturday night at the Beale Street Music Festival, where it can take 20 minutes to walk 50 yards in a tight crush of sweaty, drunken humanity. 

The Graceland mansion tour, where Elvis may have been a “King” but his palace was not constructed with sightseers in mind. Try following a group down the tight stairs to the TV Room and Pool Room and then back up to the Jungle Room while maintaining a safe 6 feet of braking distance. 

Strickland: ‘Come together to stay apart’

So Memphis in May’s most densely populated event — or any of the rest of it — was never going to happen on schedule this year. This was known well before some municipal insistence either forced the organization’s hand or, more likely at this stage, gave them some desired official cover for a postponement.

And the news of Graceland’s closure this weekend prompted this first thought: Wait, Graceland was still open?

The Big E got in under the wire. One assumes that Mayor Jim Strickland’s Friday expansion of his Thursday civil emergency order — referencing the closure of a broad range of entertainment and recreational entities — would have applied to Graceland if they hadn’t already announced they were closing until at least April 3. (Presumed emphasis: At least.)

Memphis in May and Graceland are pretty core to the city’s sense of self, but the impact has been more intimate for even more crucial institutions in the week when the coronavirus crisis got real in Memphis. 

As the city’s number of confirmed cases more than doubled from four to 10 and then ballooned to 66 by Sunday, we found out that those confirmed cases included employees of the Memphis Police Department and Shelby County Schools, St. Jude and FedEx. You can get no closer to the civic bone than that. 

An all-hands-on-deck situation features plenty of encouraging stories, from corporations such as FedEx stepping in to bolster a buckling medical supply chain to Memphis hospitals banding together to many restaurants shifting toward takeout even before it was mandated. 

‘Like military base on high alert,’ FedEx hub aids COVID-19 fight

But none of this is a substitute for elected leadership, where Strickland is arguably the only lead executive for whom most Memphians are a constituent who has so-far acquitted himself well.

Strickland aggressively issued a series of escalating declarations in the past week, while his county counterpart, Lee Harris, began the crisis overseas, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee has played catch up and Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves barely even that. And the president … let’s just move on.

Lee Harris says he would never have made Ghana trip had he known what awaited

These Memphis declarations have been a catalyst for echoing actions from surrounding municipalities, including across the southern border, where mayors of Southaven and Olive Branch declared civil emergencies on Sunday. This is a challenge Memphis faces that Nashville, for instance, does not: Memphis is a city, but it’s also a tri-state metro, and a virus does not care about borders.

Whatever you think of his policy priorities, Strickland prides himself on being a data-driven executive, and his evidence-based decision-making and managerial seriousness has served him, and the city, well in this unprecedented moment. 

But is there an argument that he still hasn’t done enough? Amid a public-health crisis that is rapidly evolving, there’s probably more than an argument. Has anyone yet made a reactive decision that’s looked over-reactive in retrospect?

Strickland issued a civil emergency order, the city’s first since 1978, on Thursday, as confirmed cases jumped from four to 10, citing evidence of community spread as a kind of trigger. 

“For the first time in Memphis, we are now experiencing community transmission of the virus, meaning it is no longer only being transmitted from someone who has traveled outside the city,” Strickland wrote in his announcement. “Now is the time for strict adherence to the Health Department’s social-distancing recommendations.” 

The thing about being data-driven: What if you don’t have much data? 

For first time, Memphis gets sense of how many have been tested

Given the lack of testing, should the Strickland administration have assumed community spread before evidence of it materialized and acted accordingly? Should they, now, follow cities such as Nashville, St. Louis and Kansas City with even more expansive “stay at home” orders, further mandating or encouraging people to work from home (and be allowed to work from home) and to avoid all but the most essential interactions? 

Both going and coming, these are easy things to second-guess: Given the broad range of “essential” exceptions, how much more of a tangible impact will these “stay at home” directives have than the broad declarations Memphis has already made? How are such things even enforced? (Arresting people and jailing them seems particularly counter-productive in this instance.) Is the gradualism, however swift, important to building community buy-in that’s essential even if an order is technically enforceable?

Regardless, the bet here, as Strickland has implied, is that there’s more to come. Why wait?

But Strickland deserves credit not only for following the evidence and expertise — a thing, sadly, that can not be taken for granted among political leaders — but for being transparent in his thinking and leveling with the public about just how serious this situation is. As Bill Dries reported, Strickland said this on Friday (italics emphasis mine):

“But the health and well-being of Memphians overcomes those (economic) concerns. This situation is going to get worse before it gets better. We are going to have to make more difficult decisions. But the days will get better. There will be a day, hopefully sooner than later, where we will be back to normal and Memphis will proceed and we have normal lives. But that is months away and we’ve got to all come together to stay apart.”

We’re into the unknown now. Public leaders should be held accountable. But it’s also worth noting when they’ve greeted the challenge.


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