The Memphis City Council met virtually today to discuss the recent mandates on local business owners. The Shelby County Health Department has been vigilant about making businesses safer through health directives, and has cracked down on those who refuse to comply with the social distancing mandates.
Shelby County Health Director Alisa Haushalter was an integral part of the conversation. “In an ideal world, given the amount of transmission nationwide, a national strategy is what's needed. If there isn't a national strategy, we need a state strategy," said Haushalter. “And unfortunately we don't have a state strategy and that's in part because of a fundamental belief that local municipalities should make their own decisions,” she said.
“If we put down a 25 percent on the restaurant, people are going to gather in their homes, and the odds of them not masking and socially distancing increases dramatically,” said Council Chair Frank Colvet. “Why can't we consider 50 percent, if for no other reason that if people are still going to party, at least they will do it in a fairly safer environment."
“Honestly, we've got people in the community that aren't doing what they're supposed to do," said Councilman Worth Morgan. "They're not asymptomatic; they're having symptoms and continuing to go about their normal lives.”
“It's not just where we are today, it's where we anticipate being in January and February if we don't reduce transmission,” continued Haushalter. She recommends sheltering in place for two incubation cycles, with fears that opening businesses where people can continue to socialize with their masks off will further delay the city’s progress. She said that the health department will take a look at the numbers in two weeks to see if the rate of exposure has decreased. If so, they will consider opening restaurants back up at 50 percent capacity.
The council weighed all of the options available, and when it came down to it, Councilmember Martavious Jones reiterated the severity of what could happen if the city doesn’t act. “Based on the information that [infectious disease specialist] Dr. Jain has presented us, we could have 100 percent more deaths. I'm going to ask you: which one of your loved ones do you want to sacrifice? There's not a damn one that I want to sacrifice,” he said.
While many businesses have complied with the mandates, Morgan stated that the orders are simply an act of solidarity, and that the Council has no real say in what actually gets enforced.
“We've been getting a lot of emails, calls about the issues and because we're voting on it, I think a lot of the public think we have a direct say in what's in this directive. Whatever action we take this day is a support measure. It means absolutely nothing, to be perfectly honest in terms of what gets enacted and what doesn't,” he said.
“As legislators as elected officials, we have to turn our attention to how we can help,” said Councilmember Rhonda Logan. “What can we do? What funds are available? What agencies are in place to help these business owners who may have to close or may have to pivot?”
As a show of solidarity and to support the restaurant industry, The Memphis City Council agreed to forego 75 percent of their council pay for the duration of this mandate, potentially as a gift to charity, or back to the city as grants to the restaurants. Their salary is about $30,000 a year, so one month of that is $2,500. 75 percent of that that would be $1,800, totaling to a little over $24,000 from all 13 members. They are prepared to continue giving for months if they must.