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

Suburban mayors frustrated with lack of direction

By , Daily Memphian Updated: April 29, 2020 10:37 AM CT | Published: April 29, 2020 4:00 AM CT

Area mayors were set to begin reopening the local economy Friday, May 1, until a surge in confirmed COVID-19 cases last weekend. Now it is unclear when the reopening will begin.

But indications from various sources are that it will be soon.

“Most of us think we’re 11 or 12 days into that 14-day window,” Arlington Mayor Mike Wissman said Tuesday, April 28, on the Ben Ferguson radio show, referring to the 14 days of falling numbers needed to begin reopening.

State will work with Shelby County leaders on reopening plan

The comments of Wissman, who said attorneys are looking into whether Shelby County Health Department directives are binding, reflect the behind-the-scenes tension as the collection of elected leaders grapple with health officials over the moving target of when to begin the phased reopening process.

Wissman went on to say his goal was to begin reopening May 1, a date he was ready to announce at the Monday press briefing where the Back to Business plan was announced. But he said he “reluctantly agreed” to hold off at the request of the health department.

And he said he’s not the only one feeling the frustration over the lack of a date.

“This (Tuesday) morning, I heard frustration in pretty much every mayor’s voice as far as not being able to give us a targeted date,” Wissman said.

Collierville Mayor Stan Joyner said he thinks there is still a chance for a reopening of some kind next week before adding: “But there’s a chance we won’t. We would like to do it with the health department’s blessing.”

The blessing of the health department, which in Shelby like the state’s other large counties has autonomy from the state health department, is the rub.

Insisting on a data-driven approach, Shelby County Health Department Director Alisa Haushalter refuses to be locked to a specific date. She said Tuesday the department is still analyzing the weekend numbers to determine whether they represent an end to a plateau of cases from the week before or simply an anomaly in about a seven-day string of good numbers.

“The best summary is, we are moving in the right direction and we know that social distancing has worked and will continue to work,” she said. “We have been at a plateau and downward trend for some days. Because of the increase in positive reports this weekend, we went up a little bit. But we are continuing to monitor that to see if we will continue to either be at a plateau or downward trajectory.”

She said the earlier goal of conducting 1,000 tests a day in Shelby County has changed with national discussions among health experts that put the preferred number for the county at 2,000 to 3,000 a day. She put a more precise number at 2,750 a day at a time when the county is below 1,000 on most days.

The health department is now moving to more focused testing of clusters of the virus in areas where there is a probability there are more cases to be found with testing. That accounted in part for the weekend increase, along with 400 pretrial detainees and jailers tested at the Shelby County Jail.

Wissman, speaking on Ferguson’s show on WREC 600 AM, discussed the numbers as well.

“I don’t know if anybody is auditing the numbers,” Wissman said. “I do think they are reporting the right numbers. It’s just on how you calculate those numbers into what is considered positive testing, what’s considered spikes or trends.”

Wissman said the mayors have asked for more data, which they are receiving.

First phase reopening plans include restaurants, retail and elective surgery

“But it’s a moving target — and it’s new for all of us, even though we are six or seven weeks into it. It’s still tough to pinpoint exactly what data everybody wants to use for whatever they want to use it (for). We always say statistics can be used however you want them.”

In response to one of the show’s callers, Wissman said officials know the baseline for a decision on opening businesses is the flattening of the curve — a leveling of cases where the trend is not increasing. And he said there are various reports on when those peaks will occur. A lot of it, he contended, “depends on how they are spinning the data.”

He said the type of targeted testing like that done last weekend taints the figures for the overall community.

As a result, Wissman said, “We’re stuck in a holding pattern. 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.”

Bartlett Mayor Keith McDonald and Joyner, the Collierville mayor, agreed that the weekend bump in positive cases in focused clusters contributed to the spike. McDonald described the discussions about the bump as “a great debate.”

“We would expect positivity in those places,” he said, noting, though, that “every life is important. No one is trying to say they are not.”

“We have a good relationship (with the health department), but we’re coming from different vantage points,” McDonald added. 

McDonald said the mayors occupy the space between health experts and business owners anxious to reopen.

“I think they would rather us give them a date sooner rather than later,” he said of business owners from whom he’s heard. “But that being said, I realize they need some lead time and we are trying (to give them that).”

Ernie Mellor, president of the Memphis Restaurant Association, confirmed that outlook. 

“If the mayor told me they want to open Monday, that would be hard. Don’t get me wrong. We want to open,” he said. “But the purveyors would have a hard time filling everybody’s bucket at one time. And of course, you’ve got to get your employees back to work.”

Mellor added: “We’re all supply-chain driven, and the supply chain is all messed up and getting worse with restaurants opening across the country all at once. People aren’t going to be able to get things they were used to having. ... If they’ll set a date, it would be great. Just lifting the anxiety of not knowing will relieve a ton of tension for a lot of people.”

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee said Tuesday he doesn’t expect to force local leaders, in Memphis or elsewhere, to reopen the economy.

Lee said he has been speaking with municipal mayors on the state’s six larger counties with their own health departments and noted his economic recovery group is working with local business groups in Davidson and Shelby counties to “create plans that are complementary.”

The governor’s “safer at home” order ends Thursday, April 30, and he will set another one to deal with businesses that will remain under restrictions.

Businesses preparing for reopening soon

Lee said he doesn’t foresee the need to step in even if Shelby declines to reboot the economy for an extended period and noted the ultimate decision lies with the county’s health department.

“That’s a situation I don’t think is going to happen. We certainly will address circumstances if they come up,” Lee said. “I’ll say right now the working together of the leaders across the state has been unique from what I can tell compared to what is happening in a lot of states. I’ve been very encouraged with the leaders of those six counties and how we’ve worked together.”

In response to questions, the governor’s spokesman Gillum Ferguson later said Lee is not concerned about the lack of a starting date for Shelby County to reopen and lack of public understanding. The Governor’s Office will be working with counties on a plan to phase in reopening “that works for the needs of their respective county and community,” Ferguson said.

Officials in Shelby, Davidson, Madison, Hamilton, Knox and Sullivan counties, which have health department independent of the state, have been allowed to set their own time frame for business re-openings, even though an attorney general’s opinion released Monday said the governor can overrule county decisions.

Meanwhile, the local testing strategy is still a moving target.

“We’ve talked about (the fact that) it is not raw numbers but an analysis,” Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris said of the case numbers as well as hospital capacity and testing — the other criteria for a reopening. “Each one of those is going to require a level of analysis.”

Harris described the analysis as “how do you understand blips in the data as judged against real efforts to expand testing.”

“Because obviously, the more you expand testing the more blips you will see in the data,” he said. “It is more than just raw numbers; it is an analysis of what those numbers mean.”

Harris and Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland have generally been on the same mind about when to reopen. And the six suburban mayors present for Monday’s announcement of the general outline of a reopening plan — without a date — indicated agreement among the leaders of every jurisdiction covering all of Shelby County on most points.

Harris indicated that some of the suburban mayors might let their emergency declarations run out at the end of the week. But none of the suburban mayors responded to Harris’s comment at Monday’s COVID-19 task force briefing.

Testing in Shelby County drops as new cases fall

Strickland’s emergency declaration for the city of Memphis runs through May 5. But he has amended the declaration rapidly without waiting for an order to expire and a decision to renew.

Asked whether there is a reopening date being discussed, however tentative, city chief communications officer Ursula Madden told The Daily Memphian by email: “As the mayors said yesterday, we can’t give a specific date — getting to phase one will be data-driven, guided by expert advice.”

In his daily email update Tuesday afternoon on the pandemic, Strickland said the city is waiting on word from the health department on whether the virus has plateaued for the required 14 days.

“We’re hopeful that when we do hear back from them, we will have a more clear picture of where we stand and when we can begin the work to lead us into Phase 1,” he said in the email.

Strickland has said getting the proper analysis will take time.

And Harris said he has complete confidence in the health department to make a timely analysis.

“I think they have really worked well with all of the municipal leaders and have been great thought partners around how to balance all of the various needs in a community like ours,” he said. “We have a lot of really important interests right now. We are trying to save lives and balance that with responsibility of trying to open up the economy.

The health department issued a check list Tuesday of preparations businesses in the first phase must meet in order to reopen. That includes signage for the public, requirements for workers and employers as well as the capacities at which they can operate.

Health Department issues addendum to reopening directive

The detailed health department directive aligns with general goals outlined Monday for those businesses to reopen at limited capacities from 25% to 50% of their normal capacity before the pandemic.

It also includes details on how shipments and supplies are to be unloaded and information for health care providers to provide specific demographic information to the Shelby County Health Department on those tested.

The 13-page directive is a specific how-to guide for the reopening and health department supervision of the reopening. It’s also a start toward long-term monitoring of how well social distancing works in combination with broader movement of citizens in the reopening of the economy.

Yet there is confusion about how this applies to the tourism industry and which parts of that industry.

Deputy city chief operating officer Kyle Veazey told Memphis Tourism — the city’s convention and visitors organization — the city is working on new guidance specific to the tourism industry and attractions including Graceland, Sun Studio, the Memphis Zoo and the National Civil Rights Museum.

The still-forming framework does not specifically mention museums, the zoo and other tourist attractions.

Veazey told the tourism group the attractions need guidelines of their own because each has its own unique characteristics. The attractions vary from large scale, such as Graceland and the zoo, to relatively compact music museums such as Sun Studio, the Stax Museum of American Soul Music and the Blues Hall of Fame.

“Our attractions want to know, because they’re champing at the bit to get back open,” Memphis Tourism chief marketing officer Regena Bearden said.

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Restaurants in 89 other rural and suburban counties opened at 50% capacity Monday, and retailers are slated to reopen on a limited basis with social distancing guidelines next Monday. Gyms are slated to restart Friday with a long set of requirements, including no use of communal areas such as athletic courts, locker rooms, swimming pools, juice bars and coffee stations. Fitness classes will be cut in half and use social distancing as shared equipment is removed.

Harris acknowledged some pressure from the openings already this week in several counties bordering Shelby County under Lee’s “Tennessee Pledge” set of standards for 89 of the state’s 95 counties.

“It has created some pressure to get some of this resolved and to be as specific as possible given the data as to where we stand,” he said.

Staff reporters Bill Dries, Abigail Warren, Wayne Risher, Sam Stockard and Jennifer Biggs contributed to this story.

COVID-19 in Memphis and Shelby County: April


COVID reopening Lee Harris Jim Strickland Keith McDonald Bill Lee
Clay Bailey

Clay Bailey

Clay Bailey, a lifelong Memphian, has worked as a reporter in the city four decades. He concentrated on suburban coverage for the bulk of his career, except for a stint as sports editor of The Daily Memphian when it launched in September 2018. He now is suburban editor and also serves as a freelance sports writer for The Associated Press.


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