Conflicting reopening plans poised to end countywide alliance on pandemic

By , Daily Memphian Updated: May 01, 2020 5:15 PM CT | Published: May 01, 2020 11:35 AM CT

Some suburban municipalities said Friday, May 1, they will allow “close contact” businesses, such as barber shops and beauty shops, to reopen next week as the alliance among local leaders over handling of the COVID-19 shutdown began to splinter.

Leaders in both Arlington and Collierville said they plan to follow state guidelines after a Shelby County Health Department directive expires at midnight Sunday, May 3. Doing so would allow “close contact” businesses to resume operation May 6.

But Health Department Alisha Haushalter said at the daily COVID task force briefing Friday that the department is in the process rewriting its directive, which would take priority if the local order still prohibits such openings.

State officials confirmed later in the day that local health department guidelines take precedence in Shelby County.

Asked if Gov. Bill Lee thinks it’s a good idea for municipal leaders to buck county time frames for reopening businesses, a spokesperson said: “No, we would expect them to follow the county guidelines as they are subject to the order from Shelby County. The state order does not apply to them.”

Memphis and Shelby County to reopen Monday

The situation speaks to the confusion surrounding plans to restart the local economy as state plans come into conflict with separate plans in Shelby and five other counties that have autonomous health departments.

As things stood Friday, Haushalter said, the “close contact” businesses could not reopen in the first of three phases of local re-openings. Those businesses also include tattoo parlors, massage services and spas.

Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland added that while he couldn’t speak for the suburbs, “close contact” businesses were in the second phase of the local plan.

Strickland’s amended order of a state of civil emergency, signed and published by Strickland Friday afternoon, lists “close contact” businesses including barber and beauty shops and nail salons among the businesses that must remain closed in the city of Memphis.

On places of worship, another topic addressed by the state, the amended Strickland order reads: “Places of worship are subject to regulations and restrictions pursuant to Executive Orders issued by the Governor of the state of Tennessee. Place of worship are strongly encouraged to continue to utilize virtual or online services and are strongly encouraged to follow best practices and applicable guidelines to conduct in-person services safely.”

Lee had previously said he would not attempt to overrule decisions by those health departments in their directives, adding that the different measures reflected different circumstances in the state’s urban areas.

Haushalter said there will discussions between her department and leaders of suburban cities before Wednesday’s planned reopenings of “close contact” businesses.

“At the current time, what we are trying to do is make sure that where there should be, that there’s alignment between the Back to Business guidance and the executive order (from Gov. Bill Lee),” she said. “At the moment, please bear with all of us. We are trying to make sure there is consistency in communication and alignment with the governor’s orders as much as feasible.”

Your quick list of what can open on Monday

The first phase of the local reopening plan calls for a gradual restart of specific categories of businesses beginning Monday. The initial phase of the local plan allows a wide range of businesses -- restaurants and bars, retail stores, offices, non-contact sports facilities and many others -- to open next week with certain restrictions. 

Other categories of businesses -- those “close contact” businesses, entertainment venues, many recreational facilities -- would not be allowed until the second and third phases.

Arlington Mayor Mike Wissman left little doubt Friday he plans to follow state directives come next week as things stand currently.

“The health directive that we’re under here locally is tied to the Back to Business plan,” Wissman said. “From our understanding, the health directive will expire at midnight on Sunday May 3, so that means Monday, May 4, we will fall under the state directives.

“So under the state, we would follow whatever is scheduled to open on May 4 like restaurants and gyms, and then on May 6 hair salons would follow,” Wissman said. “We plan on following the state health directive, pending the expiration of the local health directive.”

Asked about the hair and nail salon re-openings in Collierville and Arlington, Strickland said: “All I know is there is discussion among some of the mayors in the county about wanting to go to the governor’s plan, which has moved those establishments into phase one. I’m not sure any city has done that.

“With respect to Shelby County, as far as I know all (Lee)’s done is preempted us on places of worship and on elective surgeries.”

Strickland was referring to a resumption of elective medical procedures in phase one of the local and state plan with some minor differences.

“The practical difference is only churches,” he said.

The governor issued an executive order this week that prevents local government from regulating crowd sizes at places of worship.

Strickland said he and his staff continue to meet with religious leaders and are encouraging them to continue streaming or broadcasting services even as they reopen for live worship in an effort to continue some social distancing measures that won’t be required any longer.

“Let me remind you this is not back to business as normal,” Strickland said. “Everyone needs to remember that they are truly safer at home.”

But Wissman said he’s heard from hair and nail salons more than any other type of business during the pandemic because many did not qualify for federal small business assistance due to a lack of full-time employees.

“It’s been tough for those businesses throughout this process, and I feel it’s important to allow them to open, even if under reduced capacity and strict guidelines,” he said.

Lee cited similar reaction from the businesses in changing his executive order on reopening for most of the state. The order was amended to allow those businesses to reopen in the first phase.

The splintering locally that became evident Friday was the culmination of a week of falling further apart.

At the start of the week, the mayors of all seven cities and towns along Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris unveiled the “Back to Work” three-phase plan for reopening the Memphis area economy.

And all emphasized the need for consistency across the county in those standards for what would reopen, when it would reopen and under what social distancing measures for the public as well as employees.

Without the consistency, various leaders in the group said, gains made in stabilizing and reducing the spread of the COVID-19 virus could be endangered with businesses open at one place in the county but not in others.

Behind the scenes, there were already disagreements. Some of the mayors wanted to start the reopening May 1 but reluctantly agreed to hold off on setting a date at the Monday press conference on the advice of the Shelby County Health Department.

It didn’t take long for the disagreement to become public, even though the alliance held.

When the May 4 reopening date was announced Thursday, there was no similar gathering of the mayors as there had been at the Monday press conference. Instead, a press release was issued and the daily press briefing from the task force was called off in lieu of the written statement.

Then by Friday morning, Collierville’s website included a banner saying “close contact” businesses would reopen May 6. Arlington soon confirmed it would do the same.

Staff reporter Sam Stockard in Nashville and freelance writer Michael Waddell contributed to this story.


Stan Joyner COVID reopening Mike Wissman Jim Strickland Alisa Haushalter

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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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