What the city’s state of emergency means

By , Daily Memphian Updated: March 18, 2020 10:21 AM CT | Published: March 17, 2020 3:23 PM CT

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.

Mayor Jim Strickland declared a state of emergency for the city of Memphis Tuesday, March 17, effective immediately.

What the declaration means is that city-operated facilities, such as libraries and community centers, will be closed until further notice, as had been planned previously. 

What the declaration doesn’t mean, at least for now, is business closings. It also doesn’t cancel any events not already canceled and does not impose a curfew. 

“There is nothing in this declaration that has made any types of orders or directives about closing restaurants and bars or limiting people through a curfew,” city chief legal officer Jennifer Sink told The Daily Memphian.

“What this declaration does is three things. One is authorizing the city departments to seek any and all federal or state funding that might available in response to the emergency,” she said. “He also is invoking his authority to temporarily halt some of the procurement procedures that might ordinarily be in place that might be needed in order to have equipment or supplies in order to respond to the emergency. And third … it is triggering the emergency management agencies powers under our local code.”

Coronavirus daily blog, March 17: Strickland declares state of emergency; third local case confirmed

Those emergency management provisions include “things like entering into mutual aid agreements,” according to Sink.

“It also gives them authorization to make purchases that they need to make, to accept private contributions and just things of that nature,” she said.

Strickland’s use of the emergency declaration appears to be sparing and reflects striking a balance between public safety measures in an unusual situation and helping businesses to remain afloat as they take an economic hit.

In announcing the declaration, Strickland said he is “urging” event organizers to follow guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on postponing or canceling social events of 10 or more people.

“This declaration allows the City and its departments and agencies to seek any and all necessary federal and state funding to facilitate the response to the Emergency,” Strickland said. “Additionally, all required procedures and formalities as to procurements on behalf of the City are hereby suspended for purchased of equipment, materials, supplies and services needed for emergency management purposes.”

Strickland also made suggestions for Memphians buying food and other essentials.

“I know many of you are concerned about getting your groceries, and making sure you have everything you need. I am asking that when you do grocery shop, please only get what you need,” he wrote.

“There is no need to hoard. This morning I spoke with several of our local grocers, and they all have plenty of food and supplies in store or on the way. It’s just a matter of having time to get shelves restocked. We ask that you be patient, and if you have elderly family, friends or neighbors, please go to the store for them.”

Strickland’s email also continued to encourage Memphians to patronize restaurants offering take-out service.

“This designation is not intending to invoke all of the powers and authority that he has,” Sink said, adding that the mayor has broader powers that aren’t on the table at this point.

“It’s not an often-invoked set of authorities but the mayor has powers under state law and he also has powers under our charter and our ordinances,” she said. “Once you can establish that there is in fact a state of emergency, the powers that a mayor has or a county mayor may have is pretty broad. It’s designed to allow the mayor to have authority to act in the interest of public health, safety and welfare and to issue orders that would be necessary to effectuate those interests.”

That includes the movement of citizens.

“The mayor has authority to regulate residents’ movement within the city and set curfew,” Sink said. “But he is not exercising that authority at this time.”

The city’s last state of emergency during the 1978 police and fire strikes was for the purpose of then-mayor Wyeth Chandler declaring a curfew and the use of National Guard troops to man fire trucks as well as act as police. But enforcement of the curfew was uneven and for the most part ignored by Memphians until a citywide blackout during the strike. The blackout was followed by some looting in isolated parts of the city and a much more stringent enforcement of the curfew.

Metro Nashville Mayor John Cooper sought a declaration of a public health emergency Sunday from the Metro Board of Health to take “extraordinary actions to protect public health.”

He specifically asked in advance of that declaration that bars throughout Davidson County close their businesses until further notice and that restaurants limit their regular maximum seating to less than half of their capacity and capped at no more than 100 customers at a time. He also sought limits on bar service at restaurants of half of the capacity with no standing.

The points were taken as mandatory by bar owners including Ian Wrigley, owner of Fleet Street Pub, who posted on Facebook Monday that the pub was closing “in compliance with Metro Nashville’s emergency COVID-19 requirements – and because it’s the right thing to do.”

A mayor cannot order a quarantine, according to the Municipal Technical Advisory Service – or MTAS -- at the University of Tennessee’s Institute for Public Service.

MTAS is frequently consulted by local governments across the state and recently put out a “hot topic Q&A” on COVID-19 for municipal governments. And it makes a distinction between a quarantine and a state of emergency.

According to the advisory, a mayor can recommend a quarantine. State law says only the state commissioner of health or a county health officer can make that call. Once imposed, evading or disregarding a quarantine is a misdemeanor under state law.


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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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