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Knox Health Board Looks to Restaurants to Help Blunt Year-End COVID Surge

video still/Knox County

The Knox County Board of Health voted Monday to tweak rules for restaurants in an attempt to limit the spiraling effects of the coronavirus pandemic in the area.

Beginning Wednesday, November 25, restaurants, bars and other places that serve alcohol will be required to end dine-in service at 10:00 p.m. daily. They will not be ordered to stop service entirely. Drive-through, delivery and takeout options will all still be available. The order is set to expire December 23. A second measure reminds residents to continue following core practices to protect themselves and others from the novel coronavirus. A third proposal that would have limited social gatherings was pushed to a later meeting for further consideration.

The measures are seen as the best current hope of stunting an unprecedented surge in COVID cases, hospitalizations and deaths without handing an unbearable economic burden to local eateries.

“We know this is hard. This is a tough thing to think about doing at the holidays,” county Public Health Officer Martha Buchanan said. “A lot of folks are employed by restaurants. It’s a tough call to make a change that we know is going to impact the income of folks…who are working hard to put food on the table.”

COVID-19 has infected nearly 4,000 Knox Countians since November 1 and killed 47, making this the deadliest month for the pandemic in the county so far. The seven-day average for percentage positive COVID tests was 13.5 percent on November 15; five percent is considered the target. Of the county’s five benchmarks for tracking the virus, three (new cases, death rate and diagnostic testing) were in the red zone; the other two (hospital capacity and contact tracing capability) were yellow.

As of November 17, 337 people in the twelve-county East Tennessee region were hospitalized, a record high for the pandemic to date.

Though health regulations related to the pandemic are often assailed as unjust, unconstitutional or tyrannical by a vocal slice of the public, health board member Dr. Maria Hurt said Friday e-mailed comments over the previous week ran strongly in favor of doing more to blunt the effects of COVID in the community.

Fifty-nine percent of respondents to the University of Tennessee’s “Tennessee Pulse” survey in September said they were very or extremely concerned about the virus as risk to personal or family health. Sixty-three percent said they were personally concerned about the virus’ spread, and more than half said they would support restaurants limiting their dine-in capacity.

The proposed changes for dining establishments were softened after an appeal from local restaurateur Randy Burleson.

“March and April were so devastating that we’re not going to be able to survive anything below fifty percent capacity,” Burleson, owner of the Aubrey’s chain, said. “We’re trying to do our part to follow all the guidelines. We would please request -- almost beg -- to keep them where they are.”

Burleson said singling out restaurants targets an industry already on shaky ground, and he objected to a narrow order when other public places, such as parks, also serve as gathering places. He acknowledged he doesn’t speak for all restaurant owners in town, and that others may be less stringent about following the county’s existing guidelines. But broadly, he defended the industry against the proposal.

“We’re not the problem here,” Burleson said. “We’re trying to be partners in this.”

Local data collected this month showed restaurants are the most common place where Knox Countians gather for more than fifteen minutes, contributing to the virus’ spread, said health board member Dr. Patrick O’Brien. National data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicated 63 percent of people who tested positive for COVID had dined at restaurants within the two weeks prior to their test. With holiday gatherings rapidly drawing near, the Board of Health on Friday night decided action could not wait.

The proposals reflected the urgent tone of the most recent White House coronavirus task force report, issued November 15. In it, the task force said the spread of COVID in Tennessee over the past month has become “deeper and unyielding” and that the upcoming holiday season puts additional pressure on state leaders to act.

The regulations drew condemnation from Republicans who see public health measures as unacceptably damaging to business interests.

State Rep. Jason Zachary said the original proposal, which sought to limit seating to 25 percent of capacity and end dine-in at 9:00 p.m., would “[E]nd the restaurant industry, having a tremendous economic impact on our county and put hundreds of people out of work…This is the tyranny of good intentions.”

Zachary co-wrote the script for an internet video released in September that painted health boards as sinister forces. Sunday, he encouraged his Twitter followers to contact the governor’s office in support of an effort to strip Tennessee’s six county health boards of their regulatory authority.

Knox County Commissioner Kyle Ward said Saturday the proposed regulations were “a reckless decision” that would negatively affect businesses and families.

Both Zachary and Ward said officials should instead encourage people to follow the “five core actions” recommended for personal safety. That’s exactly what the Board of Health, the Knox County Health Department, and various elected and appointed officials have been doing for months.

Continuing the pattern, one resolution approved Monday night said in part, “there is need for increased diligence among all citizens to practice the five core actions with fidelity in order to protect the public health and welfare.” Another section encourages people to continue patronizing businesses while following safety guidelines. But during July’s COVID surge, Buchanan said simply asking alone wasn’t working.

“We might not need harsh regulations if we can get people do what’s on this list,” Dr. Patrick O’Brien said during Monday’s meeting. “It can make a huge difference in our community, much more so than us regulating specific areas.”

State-level polling has indicated personal concerns about safety, not public health regulations, are keeping some people away from restaurants this year. A third of respondents to the September "Tennessee Pulse" survey said they felt comfortable eating inside restaurants. But 48 percent of respondents said they won’t feel comfortable eating dine-in until case counts steadily decrease, treatments for COVID become more widely available, or an effective vaccine hits the market. The poll was conducted before the most recent case surge began.

“A significant number of individuals are simply not engaged with the economy,” the poll’s authors wrote in a summary of their findings. “A stable and consistent finding across all five waves of the Tennessee Pulse survey is that a significant number of individuals will not re-engage with society and the economy until a vaccine is developed and Covid-19 caseloads fall.”