“The health department did not necessarily agree to move forward with opening things without a lot of discussion…”
There appears to be a lot of political considerations in the messages the public is being given in connection with the COVID-19 pandemic. Nationally it is pretty obvious. Even locally there are clearly calls from some segments of the general public which put pressure on those in decision making positions. This article is about pressure among those public officials who are the deciders, which pressure appears, at least to the public, to be more subtle.
One of the first clues was when the suburban cities announced they would be following the state’s return to business plan instead of that issued by Shelby County government and the county health department.
About as close as an official will come to admitting possible political pressure was when Dr. Alisa Haushalter, a doctor of nursing practice and director of the Shelby County Health Department made the following comment to the news media on May 11, 2020.
“The health department did not necessarily agree to move forward with opening things without a lot of discussion and so in the end we came to consensus and did that collectively. In addition to our subcommittee the mayors meet regularly and have discussion. They have additional perspective to consider beyond the public health perspective and they also have discussion and in the end we have come to agreement, collectively. I think that’s the message we’ve given to the public: that we are in alignment locally across multiple municipalities.”
Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris and City of Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland repeatedly say they listen to the doctors and use the data and the doctors’ advice to drive their decisions. Although it is not explicitly stated and therefore leaves a large loophole, in context one would likely presume those doctors the political leaders reference are medical doctors and doctors of nursing, perhaps other biological sciences doctors, not those with a Ph. D. in marketing or other non-health related disciplines. The above quote clearly indicates decisions are made distinct from the preference of the department charged with the health of the people of Shelby County.
On May 4, Harris did say, “this process has been, of forging unity, has been challenging. We have a large county with a wide range of perspective and experience. After that we are in unprecedented times.” He went on to say they have agreed on the phase one of back-to-business plan.
At almost every announcement made by local public officials regarding the COVID-19 pandemic response, the term “consensus” is used describing the position of all the Shelby County governmental entities involved in the response planning. It has been said that a united plan is one of the most important aspects of the planning and implementation process. Time and time again, governmental officials have complemented themselves on achieving that consensus.
Despite the claims of unity, when Stacy Jacobson of WREG asked Harris about a news release from the City of Germantown saying that as of May 6 personal appearance businesses, including salons, barbershops, nail salons, spas, waxing/threading salons, tanning salons and massage therapy establishments will be allowed to reopen in Germantown, Harris had to say that his only thought was the release of that announcement was a mistake. That is because the Shelby County Health Officer’s directive did not allow salons, spas, waxing/threading salons, tanning salons and massage therapy establishments open on that day. Germantown did come back within a day, prior to May 6, to comply with the local orders. It seems Germantown thought it could follow the state’s back to business plan, which did not apply to Shelby County or the other metro areas in the state. The announcement indicates at the least a lack of communication among the local Joint COVID-19 Task Force participants or a lack of consensus among the members until those proposing a deviation were brought back into line.
Officials have said that at times more than 100 people are involved in the Joint COVID-19 Task Force discussing the pandemic response in Shelby County. While the full listing of those persons has not been widely disseminated, it has been noted that either the mayors or their representatives of each of the seven municipalities, the county mayor, and the health department are included. The meetings of the Task Force are not open to the public, unless you are invited by the powers that be, you are not privy to the discussions or the votes, if any, that are guiding public policy as to when businesses can be open and how people are supposed to interact with one another.
Acting under emergency powers granted by state and local laws, there have been few situations in which government has exercised as much of its restrictive power over such a large number of people and businesses in Shelby County. The Tennessee General Assembly’s law stating that it is the policy of “this state that the formation of public policy and decisions is public business and shall not be conducted in secret” seems not to be applicable even though decisions affecting the health and business of everyone in the county are being made on a frequent basis.
The private nature of the Task Force’s meetings leaves the public with only small clues as to the actual preferred positions of the participants. The public is left with little evidence of their consensus, or lack of it prior to potential political pressure, job intimidation, or other inducements. This not to say that there are strong arm tactics, the public just cannot know if there are or not. With the repeated announcement of consensus and the small clues of a lack of that degree of unity, the question remains open, although those small clues suggest that political or other pressures may be brought to bear.