Mayor Jim Strickland says he would’ve handled new restrictions on restaurants differently

Published: Dec. 23, 2020 at 7:42 PM CST
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland is urging residents to heed advisories from public health officials to stay home over the next few weeks as the area weathers a surge in COVID-19 cases.

The mayor also said he doesn’t agree with everything in the latest Shelby County Health Department directive.

This week the Shelby County Health Department issued a new health directive that goes into effect Saturday encouraging residents to stay at home through the end of January. But the directive hasn’t been without controversy.

“For nine or ten months Memphians have done a good job of staying apart and keeping this disease low until the last 30 days, and the numbers have skyrocketed,” said Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland.

Strickland said the COVID-19 situation remains serious as the year comes to a close.

The county is averaging more than 700 new cases daily over the past 14 days, with hospital capacity stretched.

Strickland said large holiday gatherings are discouraged, for fear of how they could impact hospitalizations and deaths from January into February.

“You have to keep it small this year, and I know it’s a sacrifice. But the doctors tell us, I think one put 70 percent on it, 70 percent of transmissions are going on at home in social settings,” he said.

The Shelby County Health Department’s latest health directive goes into effect Saturday for four weeks. It caps restaurant capacity at 25 percent and also cuts capacity at retail stores and gyms to 50 percent while encouraging people to stay home.

The Memphis Restaurant Association said their industry is being unfairly targeted as a source of spread.

Health department officials said Tuesday dining at a restaurant is riskier than a trip to a big box store because of a variety of factors like the size of the facility and ventilation.

“You can’t compare a small restaurant to a big box store. A small restaurant is a small space. It’s enclosed. People are generally there 90 minutes to two hours to eat, and for a portion of that time they are going to take their mask off,” said Shelby County Health Department Director Alisa Haushalter.

Strickland said he sympathizes with restaurant owners.

“I’ve talked to restaurant owners. I’ve talked to employees. I understand what they’re saying,” he said. “This is not a recent thing that restaurants have taken a hit on. They’ve had it really rough since March, really.”

Strickland said he would’ve kept capacity at 50% in the latest directive and not reduced it further.

“I would have probably handled restaurants a little bit differently, but I think that the overall intent is correct that we have to have an intervention from government to keep people apart from each other,” he said.

WMC Action News 5 reached out to the Shelby County Health Department for a confirmed number of cases in the county contact-traced to area restaurants.

“Cases are not attributed specifically in the way the question suggests. Individuals may be infected due to contact with household members, coworkers, social activities and other exposures. Among specifically mentioned activities that cases report during their infectious and exposure periods, eating in restaurants is the most frequently mentioned activity,” wrote David Sweat, Deputy Director for the Shelby County Health Department.

Numbers from the state of Tennessee show that 826 COVID-19 clusters are under monitoring in the state, with ten attributable to bars and restaurants and two clusters in the Memphis/Shelby County area.

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