A meeting between public health officials and business owners in Sevier County was intended to share information about COVID-19 as virus cases continue to build in the county. But the press was not notified about the meeting, and a reporter covering it was asked to leave.
The meeting at the LeConte Center in Pigeon Forge took place June 29. Participants were asked to wear a mask and seating was spaced appropriately for physical distancing, Sevier County Assistant Mayor for Governmental Affairs Perrin Anderson said.
The meeting was organized by local tourism and government officials at the request of the Tennessee Department of Health. TDH’s Dr. Jana Chambers and Dr. Tara Sturdivant asked the assembled business owners to cooperate with contact tracing and stick to guidelines meant to slow the spread of COVID-19. Anderson said the information is especially important as the county, which heavily depends on tourism, enters the Independence Day weekend.
In 2018, the most recent year for which complete data are available, tourism spending in Sevier County hit $2.5 billion. It was the third-highest draw of any county in the state that year. But COVID-19 changed travel plans for many people, a shift of no small importance to the county and its well-known destination towns.
New cases in the county began rising sharply June 8. Sevier County had 266 active COVID-19 cases July 1. 144 of them were confirmed in the prior week alone. State health officials say 10 or fewer new cases per 100,000 people is ideal. Sevier County’s new case rate as of July 1 was 50.65. It is the only county in the Knoxville metropolitan statistical area above the threshold.
Some Independence Day celebrations in the county have been cancelled or scaled back in deference to the potential risk of the virus spreading via crowds. Other events, such as a fireworks display in Gatlinburg, are still on.
“Gatlinburg wants to be sure that we continue as many of our long-standing patriotic traditions as possible,” Mark Adams, CEO of Gatlinburg Convention and Visitors Bureau, said in a statement released in early June. “We are encouraging everyone to be prepared for social distancing and healthy travel practices while celebrating the 4th of July in Gatlinburg.”
About half an hour into the June 29 meeting, newspaper editor Cindy Simpson, covering the event for the Sevierville Mountain Press, was asked to leave. She was told business owners wouldn’t feel comfortable asking questions if members of the press were present. Simpson reported about 275 people attended the session.
The meeting was intended for businesses and attendance was by invitation only, Anderson told WUOT News. Simpson said the Mountain Press was sent an invitation and replied with an RSVP. No media notice was issued. When asked about that, Anderson told WUOT News there was a media availability after the meeting concluded. An availability is a brief event at which reporters get to hear participants speak about a topic (usually a prepared or improvised statement) and ask questions. Anderson said Tuesday media outlets were told about the availability only if they specifically asked; no notice was sent.
The Tennessee Department of Health directed all questions to the Pigeon Forge Department of Tourism.
“Local officials felt attendees would be more at ease if the media was not present,” Pigeon Forge City Manager Earlene Tester told WUOT News. “This topic is so very important to public health that city and county leaders did not want anyone to be inhibited by a camera or reporter.”
Tester said the meeting was informative and productive.
Because the meeting was not of a governmental body, it was not subject to state open meeting laws, Tennessee Coalition for Open Government Executive Director Deborah Fisher said. However, materials from the meeting, such as notes, handouts and presentations, are subject to public records laws.
In response to request for more information, Pigeon Forge provided two handouts to WUOT News: one explains workplace COVID screening guidelines for employees; the second is a letter to Sevier County businesses from the Tennessee Department of Health (which operates the Sevier County Health Department).
“Over the past few weeks, COVID-19 testing conducted at the health department’s testing site has shown an increasing number of positive results,” the letter read. “The Sevier County Health Department is urging businesses to follow the Tennessee Pledge guidelines…to ensure safety and reduce the spread of COVID-19."