Extended ‘Safer at Home’ order inches city, county toward cautious re-opening

By , Daily Memphian Updated: April 23, 2020 6:05 AM CT | Published: April 22, 2020 11:47 AM CT

Mayor Jim Strickland extended the city’s Safer at Home order to May 5 because Memphis is not ready to re-open, and he said the city’s timetable for reopening will be slower than the rest of the state.

Strickland made minor changes to the order as the growth in new cases countywide has declined over the past several days.

That includes reopening Memphis golf courses and automated car washes, but also formally limiting capacity at big box retailers,

Strickland made it clear that a phased-in reopening of the city and surrounding county will be on different terms than the rural counties that make up most of the state’s 95 counties.

“Reopening our city and getting our economy moving again is vitally important,” he said during the Wednesday, April 22, COVID task force briefing.

“But we must get back to business the right way,” Strickland said. “We cannot squander all the good we have done with our social distancing effort to slow the spread of the virus.”

The latest numbers show that the COVID-19 case rate in Shelby County has slowed slightly over the past week as the number of people tested for the virus has increased.

Gov. Bill Lee announced earlier that the state’s Safer at Home order will end April 30 and businesses in most of the state will begin ramping up as soon as April 27.

Under terms of the new city order, five of the city’s eight golf courses as well as private golf courses within Memphis will reopen this weekend.

Effective Friday, April 24 at 6 a.m., all “big box” retailers must implement safeguards used at most of the city’s supermarkets on a voluntary basis the past two weeks.

Those safeguards include limiting the number of people who can be in the store and providing for lines to enter the store with social distancing standards. It also requires hand sanitizer and face masks for employees who are in crowded areas of the store.

And the big box stores must provide at least one hour a day of restricted access to those 55 and older and those who are otherwise more at risk for the COVID-19 virus. Most local supermarkets have already set aside hours at the start of the day for those customers.

Local leaders face ‘challenge’ of how and when to reopen economy

The changes represent a further move toward reopening the Memphis economy as the growth in new cases countywide has declined over several days.

At the same time, Strickland reiterated that a phased-in reopening of the city and surrounding county will be on different terms than the rural counties that make up the majority of the state’s 95 counties.

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Lee said Wednesday he spoke with Strickland, as well as mayors of the state’s other five largest counties, and is working to develop a strategy for business re-openings. 

“I think if you live in Memphis … it’ll be clear that that is the time frame for Memphis, and if you live in one of the counties for which our time frame is laid out, it should be clear to you that is the time frame that will be applicable to residents of that county. We are working together,” Lee said.

The state acknowledged it had 444 new COVID-19 cases out of 6,700 tests Wednesday, the state’s highest daily increase since it started tracking cases. But Health Commissioner Dr. Lisa Piercey said the high number was caused by results brought in from state prison tests conducted in recent days.

The White House sent out guidelines urging states to show at least 14 straight days of declines before rebooting businesses. Piercey contends Tennessee continues to show day-over-day decreases.

Most states have one public health department with jurisdiction for the whole state.

Tennessee is different because it recognizes the metro areas - communities with more than 1 million people - may have different needs in a pandemic.

As a result Shelby and five other counties that make up the larger, urban areas - Madison, Knox, Davidson, Hamilton and Sullivan - are independent but work in conjunction with the state health department.

While the state health department guides decisions in the 89 rural counties, the metro health departments have more autonomy, Shelby County Health Department Director Alisa Haushalter said.

“The importance of that locally is that we can work closely with the elected officials to determine when to move back to business locally,” she said. “And that may be different than what is decided at the state level that impacts those 89 rural counties.”

That means, particularly as communities make plans to reopen businesses, that the Shelby County Health Department can advise leaders based on the unique conditions here.

Haushalter said each of the metro areas have “distinctly different disease patterns,” and she noted the autonomy her department has “allows us to tailor our public health efforts to meet the needs of our specific communities.”

The criteria for considering reopening different sectors or activities, according to Strickland, include:

  • A stable or declining number of new cases for some period of time
  • Hospitalizations for the virus being stable or declining for some period of time
  • Hospitals having the capacity to treat all patients
  • Sufficient testing and contact and tracing capabilities to contain the virus

The specific standards for those guideposts are being developed by the local economic recovery team formed as part of the countywide COVID-19 response. Strickland said those standards should be announced within the next two weeks.

That’s when the current amended emergency order order expires, meaning there could be a further rollback of non-essential closings May 5.

Strickland acknowledged there has been discussion about allowing hospitals and medical practices to resume elective medical procedures, something for which doctors and hospital executive have been pushing.

Saint Francis Hospitals Memphis furloughed up to 250 employees starting this week, citing the ban on elective surgeries to save medical capacity for the pandemic.

“It’s also being reviewed seriously by the major hospitals in Memphis,” Strickland said of lifting the restriction on hospitals and medical practices. “They are reviewing it as a whole so that everyone is on the same page. The areas that have reopened to some extent, elective surgery is one of the first things they allow.”

Starting Friday, fully automated car washes will be allowed to reopen under strict standards that do not allow for vacuuming or detailing cars.

The new conditions also “strongly encourage” all residents to wear face masks when they are in crowded areas but stop short of requiring the face masks. The Memphis City Council is set to discuss requiring the use of face masks or covering at a special council meeting next week.

After a test this past weekend at the Links at Whitehaven, a city golf course, Strickland said he was convinced golf and social distancing could coexist with standards private golf courses in the county outside the city have been using for several weeks.

Those standards have included no touching the flag stick, one person per golf cart, tee times separated by 20 minutes, sanitizing golf clubs and other equipment as well as turning the bottoms of holes up so that it limits how far someone has to reach in to retrieve a golf ball.

The city golf courses that reopen this weekend under what are expected to be similar conditions are Pine Hill, Galloway, Audubon and Fox Meadows along with the Whitehaven course.

The specific standards for those five courses announced later Wednesday differ from earlier standards. They call for no golf carts -- only personal push carts; no walk-in tee times, all times must be set before arriving; and credit card payments only, no cash.

The Overton Park, Riverside and Davy Crockett city golf courses remain closed.

Meanwhile, the state is preparing to start reporting the number of confirmed cases and COVID-related deaths in all long-term care facilities statewide.

Under the state’s new plan for nursing home-type facilities, health departments and family members are to be notified immediately any suspected or confirmed COVID-19 case in residents or staff.

An investigation will start into contact tracing, and the facility will be cleaned as soon as possible in these situations. Information will be gathered to determine the need for personal protective gear and environmental needs, targeted or widespread testing of residents and staff and whether residents need to be relocated to hospitals.

Staff reporters Jane Roberts and Sam Stockard contributed to this story.

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


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Bill Dries

Bill Dries

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


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