Herrington: First thoughts on Shelby County’s ‘back-to-business’ framework

By , Daily Memphian Updated: April 27, 2020 5:06 PM CT | Published: April 27, 2020 3:58 PM CT
Chris Herrington
Daily Memphian

Chris Herrington

Chris Herrington covers the Memphis Grizzlies and writes about Memphis culture, food, and civic life. He lives in the Vollintine-Evergreen neighborhood of Midtown with his wife, two kids, and two dogs.

The mayors or mayoral representatives of Memphis, Shelby County and its various smaller municipalities presented a unified front at Monday’s county/city COVID task force briefing, introducing a three-phased “Back-to-Business” framework for navigating toward some new version of normal in the coming weeks and months.

Some quick thoughts on the framework and its rollout

Better metaphors: We use metaphor to wrestle concepts into something more comprehensible and one of our problems with comprehending the present moment has been a lapse into binary thinking: Open/close, on/off, green/red. 

I found myself falling into open/close talk in my daily segment on “The Geoff Calkins Show” on Monday morning and corrected with a “faucet” metaphor, one I was pleased to hear Shelby County Health Department Alisa Haushalter deploy at the briefing. 

The faucet concept of tightening and loosening is a better way to understand where we are and where we’re going than opening/closing, much like the flashing yellow is truer than red/green.

In this case, the “water” whose flow is being managed is both human/economic activity and coronavirus spread that has so far come with it. And one way forward in the short and medium term is to look for ways to lessen the accordance between those two things. 

Herrington: Lee’s decision is no green light; now we all live in the flashing yellow

One letter means so much: Data vs. date. This was a distinction that Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland underscored. That the Memphis/Shelby Country approach to phased loosening of economic and social restrictions won’t be governed by a calendar but by progress on a set of public-health metrics. 

Some are impatient for quicker change, and there may be good arguments for that. But “we’ve done this long enough” isn’t one of them. Setting an arbitrary date suggests not an active process but a lack of one. 

And because loosening restrictions is based on data, so might tightening be. It’s important to note that this faucet handle needs to be able to turn both ways. As Baptist Hospital infectious disease expert Dr. Stephen Threlkeld said early in this local process, we could be looking at multiple instances of loosening and tightening as we navigate our way through this. 

Math is confusing: Fourteen days? Here’s what Strickland said about what would trigger a transition into a new, less restrictive phase:

“The number of new cases are stable or declining for 14 days. Our hospitalizations of COVID patients are stable or declining for 14 days. And our hospitals have the capacity to treat all patients. Our testing and tracing capabilities must be sufficient to contain the virus.” 

This seems broadly confusing to people, and that’s unavoidable to some degree. But it’s important to understand that it doesn’t mean 14 consecutive days of decline. It’s not a clock that restarts if a day is worse than the one before. It’s also not simply a matter of comparing Day 14 to Day 1 in a sample. It’s about a general two-week stabilization or decline across those metrics. 

It’s also not a set formula. These decisions may be data-driven, but are subject to interpretation. 

The friction between more testing and fewer cases: And here’s a good reason why this is.

Does this weekend’s spike in cases mean we’re at least 14 days from the beginning of Phase 1? Not necessarily, per Haushalter. (Though quite possibly.)

There’s likely to be an inverse relationship, at least for the foreseeable future, between the decrease in cases that would trigger a move into a new phase and an increase in testing. 

So far, Shelby County’s testing has been focused on the symptomatic. Part of loosening restrictions on different sectors of the economy is going to mean broader testing of the asymptomatic. This will mean more cases but presumably a much lower rate of hospitalizations relative to those cases. 

We can’t let a desire for case reduction in order to loosen restrictions interfere with a pursuit of more testing. That’s why those other categories Strickland mentioned, the ones more rooted in managing the virus – hospitalizations, hospital capacity and test/and trace containment – are so important. And it’s probably why Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris made a point of clarifying that the number of positive cases won’t alone determine phasing decisions. 

Sorry, Chattanooga: It was nice to see Memphis, so far, avoid the situation in Atlanta, where the mayor and governor are at odds over the current path, and especially Chattanooga, where on Monday the county major essentially overrode the city mayor. 

“The purpose of this was to get us on the same page and we’ll work hard to stay on the same page,” Strickland said. 

Everyone won’t agree with the city’s phased plan or its data-dependent implementation, but hopefully a unified front from urban and suburban mayors can help us better navigate it. 

Herrington: When it comes to coronavirus in Memphis, ‘Tennessee’ only means so much

The rest of the metro area: A unified county is a positive, but for Memphis writ large, a unified metro would be better. There was brief mention on Monday of Tipton and Fayette counties in western Tennessee, Crittenden in east Arkansas and DeSoto in north Mississippi. 

A disconnect between the Shelby framework and the facts on the ground in the latter, in particular, is likely a bigger complication than Monday’s Shelby-focused briefing suggests.

Maybe go ahead and order those clippers: Even if Phase 1 began tomorrow – and it won’t – it will be at least 14 days before we get into Phase 2, when maybe you can get a haircut, and at least 28 days until Phase 3, when non-medically necessary dental visits – such as cleanings – would come back on line. 

What’s beyond Phase 3?: There’s no Phase 4, suggesting that Phase 4 is just normal life, or whatever that’s going to mean on the other side of this. “Beyond Phase 3” might be a year or more away pending what happens with treatments and a vaccine. 

So consider this a living document. Schools are mostly kept out of it. We’ll sort that out separately. But another thing that’s left vague: entertainment/recreational gatherings, which are closed until Phase 3, and even then still closed except: “Groups of 50+ may be allowable if supported by the characteristics of the space and a clear social distancing plan. + Adherence to social distancing.”

What does that mean? It means we still have a lot to figure out. Now that’s a new normal. 

The final word: We’ll leave that to Collierville Mayor Stan Joyner, with another new normal for the foreseeable future: “This is not over. Don’t relax. Don’t give up on social distancing, don’t give up on handwashing, don’t give up on wearing your mask, don’t give up on good social etiquette. Please protect those that are around you.” 

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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