Shelby County reopening date ‘very close’ but still vague as suburbs grow restless

By  and , Daily Memphian Updated: April 29, 2020 9:09 PM CT | Published: April 29, 2020 3:38 PM CT

Shelby County is “very close” to a reopening of the local economy, according to Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris and Shelby County Health Department Director Alisa Haushalter.

Prior to a bump in positive tests last weekend that was part of an increase in those tested for the COVID-19 virus, the downward trend in cases of the virus locally was “very close” to a 14-day period that is among the standards for starting to reopen nonessential businesses.

Haushalter, Harris: businesses should prepare for reopening

“We want to make sure people know we are getting very close and to begin to prepare,” Haushalter said Wednesday. “We do recognize that all businesses are a little bit different. Some may need more technical assistance than others. Some may need a longer lead time.”

<strong>Lee Harris</strong>

Lee Harris

But she again at a Wednesday press conference refused to recommend a formal date for the first phase of the reopening to elected leaders.

“What we’ve done is look at the data in several different ways. One is including the increased cases that came in over the weekend,” she said. “The other was excluding those particular numbers as well. There is still a trend upward over the last several days. But we will look at that again tomorrow and the following day.”

The eight mayors of every jurisdiction covering Shelby County had been prepared this week to announce the first phase of reopening effective May 1. But that was shelved just before a Monday press conference after the bump in new COVID cases.

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

Some of the mayors of the six suburban towns and cities outside Memphis but within Shelby County have said they believe the higher numbers are a function of more tests and are anxious to announce a date as soon as possible.

Arlington Mayor Mike Wissman has said he has consulted with attorneys on whether his city can go it alone, although he also said he believes the health department numbers are accurate with room for differences over who to interpret them.

So far, Harris says the alliance among the mayors that was behind the creation of common standards for a reopening countywide remains intact.

Sen. Paul Rose, other state leaders discuss reopening

But the tension is showing.

Collierville officials point to Gov. Bill Lee’s executive order No. 30, which gives authority to Shelby County Health Department. Because of that order, the town’s aldermen believe their hands are tied.

A major sticking point for the suburban mayors this week has been the targeted testing in jails last weekend.

“The numbers got skewed that day because they tested (at Shelby County Criminal Justice Center),” Collierville Mayor Stan Joyner told aldermen in a work session Wednesday.

As the state reopens, Collierville aldermen are receiving plenty of questions about the plans from residents. Joyner said the measures the state is taking to reopen “are cutting our legs off.”

Town Administrator James Lewellen said the county Health Department’s goal is to limit and stop community transmission.

“That’s where the debate is coming in the grand scheme of things. How much risk is there (of viral spread)?” he said. “That’s what everybody is trying ultimately to avoid.”

“They won’t give us a date,” Joyner said, noting that in many parts of the state businesses will reopen Friday.

Lewellen told aldermen Wednesday he feels the county Health Department will not release a date until they have 100% certainty.

“Shelby County Health Department won’t commit to anything,” town attorney Nathan Bicks added.

Bartlett Mayor Keith McDonald hopes for an announcement regarding a date by the end of the week. But he said Wednesday the needle hadn’t moved much since Monday.

“We’re still fighting every day to be able to find a date that we can at least begin Phase 1 of our Back to Business (plan),” McDonald said in a post on the suburb’s Facebook page.

He added that they hoped to have more information on a date “by the end of the week.”

McDonald said he understands the frustrations of citizens and business owners who see the majority of the counties across the state reopening in some manner. He said such a plan in Shelby County doesn’t lie with the individual cities.

“There’s nothing I can do about that,” the Bartlett mayor said. “People have called and said: ‘Can’t you change this?’ and I can’t override the governor. The law allows currently the Health Department to have a huge say in a pandemic. We’re not trying to give anybody else our authority as a city. We have our rights, but in a case like this, things are a little different.

“I know everybody wants to know ‘What’s the date?’” McDonald said. “And I don’t have it (Wednesday).”

But Harris says re-opening is coming, and there is nothing to prevent those first phase businesses under the countywide standards for reopening to begin preparations.

“I would encourage businesses to prepare,” he said. “If you have inventory… there’s no reason why you shouldn’t take steps to prepare to make sure you have inventory in place.”

He also said there is no requirement that those businesses allowed to reopen have to open as soon as possible.

“Even once there is a date announced based on the data, you need not open that very first hour or that very first day,” Harris said. “You can take things at your own timetable.”

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


COVID reopening Alisa Haushalter Lee Harris

Bill Dries on demand

Never miss an article. Sign up to receive Bill Dries' stories as they’re published.

Enter your e-mail address

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.
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.

Abigail Warren

Abigail Warren

Abigail Warren is a lifelong resident of Shelby County and a graduate of the University of Memphis. She has worked for several local publications and covers the suburbs for The Daily Memphian.


Want to comment on our stories or respond to others? Join the conversation by subscribing now. Only paid subscribers can add their thoughts or upvote/downvote comments. Our commenting policy can be viewed here