Health Dept. defends latest health directive

By , Daily Memphian Updated: September 24, 2020 4:10 PM CT | Published: September 24, 2020 12:34 PM CT
<strong>Shelby County Health Department Director Alisa Haushalter (right) gives an update about coronavirus on Thursday, October 10, 2020 during a COVID-19 task force briefing</strong>. (Mark Weber/The Daily Memphian)

Shelby County Health Department Director Alisa Haushalter (right) gives an update about coronavirus on Thursday, October 10, 2020 during a COVID-19 task force briefing. (Mark Weber/The Daily Memphian)

The Shelby County Health Department on Thursday defended its decision to open bars this week, saying it now knows that if the rules are followed, transmission is no more likely to happen there as in full-service restaurants, which have been open for months.


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“We feel that limited-service restaurants are not inherently more risky than any other, given that all adhere to the same safety measures,” said health department medical officer, Dr. Bruce Randolph.

The measures require bar patrons be seated and served at tables. No dancing is allowed indoors and music must be at level that people can comfortably be heard without having to raise their voices. While there are no occupancy limits, tables must be spaced six feet apart.

But because there have been ongoing issues with bar owners ignoring the rules, Randolph was clear that continued abuse could result in establishments losing their liquor license.

“I want to make something very clear though, enforcement will be very seriously pursued,” he said.

“We are partnering with Alcohol Beverage Commission, and they are going to help us enforce this.”

The authority is noted in the latest health directive, which was issued Tuesday. 

Randolph suggested having a copy and being informed of the rules will be critical moving forward, particularly for bar owners.

“So, we’re very serious about this as an opportunity for everybody to move forward; everybody has got to do right so we can do more,” he said.

“We are hoping that the establishments and citizens will take it upon themselves to realize if that they don’t comply, it puts the whole community at risk. If we get an increase in our numbers, then we would have to go backwards.”

Memphis police, Shelby County Sheriff’s Department and the municipalities have all been enforcing the public health codes. Citizens have a role too, said Alisa Haushalter, health department director.

“It’s important that as consumers, you exercise your consumer rights and ensure that the businesses that you go to actually are adhering to the health directive.”

Complaints may be filed by calling 222-MASK, calling the (Memphis) Mayor’s Action Center, 222-2300 or emailing shelbytnhealth@shelbycountytn.gov.

“We have staff at work seven days a week. They are out all hours of the day and night,” she said.

“I think there’s a misperception that we are not out in the evenings or the weekends, but we actually are. We have teams out every weekend, well into the late hours.”

Since July, the health department has added more than 200 people to increase its capacity, including teams for enforcement. But it is relying heavily on the public, Haushalter said, “to get the information to us so that we can really intervene quickly and reduce the likelihood of transmission.”

That includes investigations that trigger contact tracing. Since the pandemic began, there have been complaints that people did not receive calls from the health department to initiate contact tracing.

Thursday, she said, nearly half of the calls the health departments makes to to contacts are not returned.

“We need each of you, particularly if you know you’ve been diagnosed with COVID, to really respond to the health department’s call,” she said.

Today, investigations begin the same day the health department is notified of a case.

“It’s really important that employers, academic institutions and schools report to the health department when they have cases, and that they begin to work with the health department immediately to contain that outbreak, or to prevent an outbreak in their facility,” Haushalter said.

By Labor Day, the county had met the tripwire metric required to reopen in all categories except case numbers had not dropped by 30%.

The health department wanted to see the effect that the long weekend and the reopening of schools had on transmission before it moved forward with loosening restrictions. 

Thursday, Haushalter said the metrics, including the virus reproduction rate and positivity rates, were never intended to be the end-all in making decisions for loosening or tightening restrictions.

“We have always said they are to be taken in context, and that they were designed to support me and Dr. Randolph in moving forward with policy decisions more quickly,” she said.

After the changes this week with limited-service restaurants, the health department will be closely watching the numbers into early October when it may make further changes.

The businesses that are still closed include close-contact, adult businesses and parades and other live events that require permits.

So much of the vigilance now as the weather cools and flu season approaches has to be personal. The health department has emphasized the safety practices emphatically since the pandemic began.

But with flu on the horizon and less opportunity for people to socialize outdoors, the messaging this week had included new urgency for people to seriously consider whether they should attend events, even outdoor events, and small gatherings inside.

“For individuals who have chronic illnesses or who are 55 or older, you really need to make sound decisions about the activities that you’ll participate in,” said Haushalter, who has said that she has chosen not to attend even family celebrations.

“When you spend time with family who do not live in your household, wear a mask indoors, but also make sure you spend time outside, and when possible, allow some air to circulate through your home by opening windows.”

Beginning Thursday, Oct. 1, the task force briefing will be translated into Spanish. The recording will be available on the health department and La Prenza Latina websites.

Child-size masks will be distributed through a multi-agency campaign from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday. For more details, go to Shelbycountytn.gov.

Topics

Memphis/Shelby County Joint COVID Task Force coronavirus
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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