By Mike Steely
The Knox County Board of Health rolled back its closing curfew for bars and restaurants from 11 p.m. until midnight. The vote came in the board’s Wednesday virtual meeting on a motion from Dr. Patrick O’Brien, who said an extra hour is important for those businesses.
With Knox County Health Department Director Dr. Martha Buchanan issuing the best benchmark report since March of last year, the board also voted to begin having monthly meetings rather than meeting every other week. The monthly schedule begins March 17 but, if the pandemic flares up, the board can meet as needed.
Buchanan said the benchmarks results are “extremely encouraging.” She reported new cases, hospitalizations and capability to respond are down. She did note that deaths due to the illness are still in the “Yellow” or cautious zone. She said that there are now 14 deaths reported per 100,000 population in Knox County.
Dr. James Shamiyeh noted that positivity rates are at about 14% of those tested and declining but added the board wants to see a 5 or 10% rate. The UT Hospital physician also noted that there are no influenza patients currently in the hospital due to the safety precautions people are taking against COVID-19. He called the small number of flu cases “truly remarkable.”
COVID-19 immunizations by the health department and a number of other places are contributing to the downward turn and Dr. Buchanan praised the lease of the former Food City building on North Broadway. Until now the large immunization clinics have been moving in and out of the Expo Center depending on other events scheduled at that location. She said the new location is convenient to everyone, has a large parking lot, and will give the department one location that may be used any day.
The board agreed to continue the mask mandate and extended the social gathering limits until their next meeting. Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs was the sole “No” vote on extending the gathering limits.
The board also discussed when to begin open public meetings and are waiting on a decision on Governor Bill Lee’s Emergency Order. Dr. Buchanan said she has learned the order will be continued which would permit the board to continue meeting virtually and continue its powers to regulate local rules.
Also discussed was the powers of the Board of Health when the emergency order is dropped. Attorney David Saunders said the board falls under state statutes and “may adopt rules and regulations as necessary” with or without an executive order as long as the local rules are no less than the state’s rules.
He said that if legislation introduced by Rep. Jason Zachary passes, the board’s powers shift to Dr. Buchanan solely and the power of overseeing health in Knox County would shift to the county mayor. Dr. Buchanan would then report to the mayor. Otherwise, if the executive order ends, the powers of the Board of Health would continue unless the legislation passes.