Knox County Schools sent notes to parents about at least three schools with infections

A.L. Lotts Elementary, Cedar Bluff Middle, Hardin Valley Academy all announced at least one confirmed COVID-19 case over the weekend.

Hardin Valley Academy’s principal sent an email announcing the school had confirmed COVID-19 “cases” Friday. Cedar Bluff Middle School and A.L. Lotts Elementary leaders both sent emails Sunday announcing a case.

District spokeswoman Carly Harrington confirmed all three emails were sent to all parents and staff of each school. 

This is at least the third email Hardin Valley Academy’s principal has sent about confirmed COVID-19 cases. There was an email on Aug. 24 that referred to a “case” and an email on Aug. 26 that referred to “cases.”

Since school started Aug. 24, the following schools have at least one confirmed case of COVID-19: Gibbs Elementary, Halls Elementary, Inskip Elementary, Hardin Valley Middle, Karns Middle and Powell Middle.

There are 34 active cases in the district, according to the district’s dashboard. There are ten pending cases and a total of 324 people in isolation or quarantine. 

Knox News is tracking COVID-19 cases in Knox County Schools

Knox News is committed to tracking Knox County schools that have COVID-19 cases. Because the district’s reopening plan allows for individual school closures, we think it’s important to track school information. We also want to help tamp down rumors or inaccurate information.

We need the help of parents, students and teachers to make that happen. We’re seeking ears on the ground at every KCS school. 

How can you help? If you receive an email about a positive COVID-19 case at your school, please forward the information to Isabel.Lohman@knoxnews.com. Or you can send us a tip on our online form. 

And if you want to be part of the ongoing effort to track COVID-19 in our schools, please fill out this form so we can stay in touch. We will not share your identity or personal information.

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Two new COVID-19 clusters identified at UT Knoxville sororities

The University of Tennessee at Knoxville has reported two additional COVID-19 clusters at sorority houses. 

The Delta Delta Delta and Alpha Delta Pi sororities are both now considered clusters by the university. The university defines a cluster as at least five positive COVID-19 cases or 20 close contacts stemming from the same event or location. In total, there have been four clusters identified.

The Delta Delta Delta and Alpha Delta Pi sorority houses are both located in sorority village at UT. 

Last week, the Zeta Tau Alpha house was identified as a cluster after two residents of the house tested positive for COVID-19. Because of how the house is set up, with shared bathrooms and living spaces, all of the residents of the house are considered close contacts, Chancellor Donde Plowman said.

The first cluster stemmed from a party thrown at a house on Laurel Avenue. There are 210 active cases of COVID-19 and 983 people in self-isolation at UT Knoxville, as of Monday. 

Other Greek organizations temporarily suspended

Last week, the university announced five fraternities and one sorority had been placed on interim suspension for breaking COVID-19 guidelines. 

Alpha Tau Omega, Sigma Alpha Epsilon, Delta Tau Delta, Pi Kappa Alpha, Kappa Alpha and Chi Omega were placed on interim suspension for hosting gatherings that did not follow mask and social distancing requirements. While suspended, they are not allowed to host any events, virtually or in-person. 

UT has also taken disciplinary action against individual students: three students for throwing a party that did not comply with guidelines, and one students for leaving isolation after testing positive for COVID-19. 

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Houston Texans Training Camp, Four Practices To Go — 4 Winners, 4 Losers

If you’re a player trying to make a final impression in an NFL training camp, time is winding down, and it is REALLY winding down if you’re a member of the Houston Texans or Kansas City Chiefs. With those two teams slated to battle in the 2020 season opener for the NFL, they’ve been conducting their respective training camps with a schedule that is three days ahead of the rest of the league.

As a result, the Texans plan on trimming their roster from 80 players down to 53 (and eventually adding a 16 player practice squad) on Thursday afternoon, two days before the deadline for the rest of the league to do so. It’s been an odd training camp, to say the least, with COVID-19 test results the most important statistic in each camp. More important than 40 yard dash times, yards per carry, or QB rating.

Put simply, if the coronavirus starts to rip through NFL locker rooms, football fans have a problem on their (well, OUR, let’s be real) hands. For now, the NFL has done an astoundingly good job at keeping COVID-19 out of the building. So let’s look at winners and losers for the Texans with 12 of the 14 allotted practices in the books. Here we go…

WINNERS

4. Opening night intrigue
Before we get to actual football observations, we must acknowledge the not-so-subtle elephant in the room regarding all sporting events these days — the possibility that it could get cancelled, for virtually any reason. In this case “it” is the NFL season opener, and the reason it COULD be cancelled (non-COVID category) would be if the NFL players were planning a demonstration like their NBA and MLB brethren, and walking out on games to protest racial inequality. When asked about the possibility, Bill O’Brien had this to say on Saturday morning:

“We’ve had some good discussions. I would say anything’s possible. I think that, just speaking for the Houston Texans, I’m really proud of these guys that are on our team. We have a lot of really good veteran guys that are really passionate about football, really passionate about what’s going on in the world. The thing that really strikes me – as a coach, you’re always in a rush, right? You want to make sure everything is going well. You’re thinking about the next day, the next play, the next three plays from now. But these players, they’re not in a rush – our players. Our players are really thoughtful. They want to think about things. They don’t want to rush to make any decisions on anything. It’s just been really enlightening for me. Today in the squad meeting, we had a good squad meeting. We’ll see how it goes. I wouldn’t be able to make any predictions. I just know our team is going to practice today and our team, we feel good about where we’re at after the scrimmage and we’re just going to keep plugging away.”

If I had to guess, the extra couple weeks leading up to the opener gives the NFL owners time to work with the players to make sure the game gets onto the field, and that they continue to make best efforts to satisfy the players’ request for action in the face of social injustice. But, honestly, it is purely a guess. The year 2020 has taught me not bank on anything.

3. DeAndre Carter
OK, onto actual football. The Texans made great effort this offseason to improve the depth of their receiving corps with capable veterans. Adding Brandin Cooks and Randall Cobb to go with Will Fuller and Kenny Stills ensures that this is a deeper group. (Whether it’s overall BETTER, given DeAndre Hopkins is now gone, is up for debate.) This would seemingly put a squeeze on younger guys, lower on the depth chart. To that end, Carter has really stepped up his game in camp, making several catches in 11-on-11 drills, and showing consistency as a returner. O’Brien likes the way Carter works, and he’s done nothing but help solidify his spot on the team. We will see if it’s enough to make the 53-man roster.

2. Jacob Martin
When he was asked to name three defensive players who have stood out in camp, defensive coordinator Anthony Weaver immediately named Martin, who begins his second season with the Texans after coming over in the Jadeveon Clowney trade a year ago to the day. Martin was used primarily as a speed rusher off the edge on obvious passing downs last year, so his goal this offseason was to add weight so he could stay on the field on first or second down. He appears to have done that, and he’s made a positive impression in camp. It would be a real coup for Bill O’Brien if somehow he got a starting caliber edge rusher out of the deal for Clowney, given how lopsided that trade looked the day it was made.

1. Speed on offense
Of all the things I am most excited and intrigued by coming out of Texans camp, it’s how this offense will look differently post-Hopkins Era. Say what you will about the underwhelming package Bill O’Brien may have gotten for one of the top three or four wide receivers in football, but there is no doubt that the Texans are a speedier and, in my opinion, more dangerous offense. The combination of elite deep speed (and short to medium route running) with the pairing of Will Fuller and Brandin Cooks, the savvy slot skills of Randall Cobb, and Duke and David Johnson catching the ball out of the backfield is awfully tasty, especially with a top five quarterback pulling the trigger. The pressure is on new play caller Tim Kelly to make this all work.

LOSERS

4. A.J. McCarron
The pressure is also on the Texans’ offensive line to keep Deshaun Watson upright and healthy. That pressure is always there, but it is especially relevant this coming season, because if the A.J. McCarron that I saw on a daily basis in training camp is the version we are getting this coming season, my confidence is level is flatlined that he can win a game for this team. McCarron didn’t have a single good practice from what I watched, and even worse, had several turnovers in 11-on-11 drills. Stay healthy, Deshaun! PLEASE!

3. Gareon Conley
One of the other pieces that, for all intents and purposes, is considered part of the Clowney trade, is cornerback Gareon Conley, who the Texans received in a trade with the Raiders for the third round pick that came over for Clowney. Conley is a former first round pick who played some decent football for the Texans over the second half of last season, but unfortunately, he came into camp this year having had foot surgery, and then he missed a few days of practice. Since returning, he’s been running almost exclusively with the second unit on defense. Lonnie Johnson has clearly passed Conley in the CB pecking order. Rough camp for a guy heading into a contract year.

2. Cullen Gillaspia
Gillaspia was a nice surprise a year ago as a seventh round pick out of Texas A&M, providing capable snaps on special teams and occasional spot work as a fullback. (If you’ll recall, Gillaspia had the block that sprung Deshaun Watson on his 20-yard TD run in the playoff win over Buffalo.) Unfortunately, for Gillaspia, he sustained some sort of leg injury in the first padded practice a few weeks ago, and has been in T-shirt and shorts every day at practice since then. I don’t think Gillaspia is in any danger of getting cut, but I’d be shocked if he didn’t start the season on injured reserve, with the chance to get rough back within a few weeks (under the 2020 IR rules, which have been significantly loosened up due to the presence of COVID-19).

1. Keke Coutee
What goes up for DeAndre Carter, almost by definition, means bad things for Coutee. It’s really a direct one-on-one battle between these two for the kick returner/backup slot WR spot, and not only has Carter looked good in camp (as we mentioned above), but Coutee missed about a half dozen or so practices with a stress fracture in his foot. He’s been back on the field the last couple days, but like Giallspia, Coutee could be a candidate for a short IR stint to start the year, while the Texans buy themselves a little more time to let the “Carter vs Coutee” play out into the early part of the regular season.

Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/SeanTPendergast and like him on Facebook at facebook.com/SeanTPendergast.

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Pour A Drink And Gussy Up For The Strange Secret Of Mr. Adrian Rook

“We had a date night”, my husband declared excitedly as we stepped away from the computer screen and began to defrock ourselves of the flashy formal wear we’d been asked to don. He wasn’t wrong.

Sure, we hadn’t left our house, might not have been wearing much from the waist down, and were drinking our own champagne, but somehow attending Strange Bird Immersive’s new interactive online show, The Strange Secret of Mr. Adrian Rook felt like a special occasion.

Was it theater? No, not really. But then Strange Bird has never produced straight ahead theatrical pieces. Was it an escape room game with a dash of the dramatic like their previous hit show, The Man From Beyond: Houdini Séance Escape? No, not that either. Probably way too difficult to take that type of genre online.

Instead what we got, along with the other folks attending the show with us (eight screens in total), was a 90-minute live online mystery-style narrative (conceived and written by company co-Artistic Directors J. Cameron and Haley E. R. Cooper) that allowed everyone, actors and participants, to see, speak and zoom-chat with each other in order to discuss clues and solve a mystery.

In this case, the strange disappearance of Mr. Adrian Rook, Secretary to the Raven Queen.

While the characters and events we witness are delightfully odd (this is a Strange Bird show after all) the format for the experience is fairly straight forward. Under the guise of an open house, participants visit six proprietors of various businesses within the Strange Bird office complex, each popping up in their own separate zoom meeting for us to easily click on. All the tenants know Mr. Rook, are distressed by his absence and, if you’re paying attention, offer some clue as to what could have happened to him.

We spend about 15 minutes with each character, mostly listening, occasionally answering or asking questions, and often just enjoying the performance. Or trying to.

Anyone who’s spent enough hours in the theater knows that technical issues can hit a show at any time. Make the show wholly reliant on technology, and well, there’s bound to an oopsie once in a while. In our case, a poor Wi-Fi connection meant that one of the six characters was pretty much wholly unintelligible to us.

Of the characters we did spend time with, not all of the performances and narratives were equally satisfying. Our 15 minutes with Whiskey and Welding owner, Brendan O’Neil (J. Cameron Cooper) whizzes by thanks to his quirky Irish-accented charm and easy rapport with the camera. He wants to share a drink again with Mr. Rook, frankly, we’d like to stick around and drink with him.

Likewise, it’s impossible to resist the tarot reading allure of Madame Daphne (Haley E. R. Cooper) as she tells our future and pouts that Mr. Rook has missed several of her sessions. Yes, yes…. Mr. Rook… we know…but Daphne can you tell us when all this COVID nonsense will be over or please just stay with us for a bit longer so we can forget about all the crap out there?

Not quite as polished, but still enjoyable was our time with Speakeasy owner Vivian Mae (Amanda Marie Parker), and dream scientist Dr. Riley E, Newmark (Lexie Jackson). A hesitant performance or perhaps ill-placed camera seemed to fluster Parker at times, breaking the spell whereas Jackson’s narrative was a tad clunky in structure, mildly undermining an otherwise game performance.

But, quibbles, as they say. A good time was still heartily being had.

As for the mystery itself, take it from me, it’s not overly difficult. I mean really, take it from me as shockingly I was the one in our group who figured out what happened to poor Mr. Rook and trust me, I’m not usually good at these things. Or maybe there were several endings and the Strange Bird folks just threw me a bone. Either way, I’m taking all the credit and remain utterly chuffed.

Besides, by the time we finally get to meet Mr. Rook (a deliciously expressive Wesley Whitson) we’re ready for things to be solved and he does so with great elegant flourish.

That’s the beauty of The Strange Secret of Mr. Adrian Rook, it doesn’t really matter if something goes wrong or if the mystery resolution isn’t complex. We don’t need perfection, we need experience. We need something entertaining, exciting, and fresh that we can share in real-time with our friends and strangers, feeling as close to in-person as we can get.

What we needed, and resoundingly got, was a shared date night with the folks at Strange Bird. If that isn’t worth drinking your own hooch and gussying up for a bit, I don’t know what is.

The Strange Secret of Mr. Adrian Rook continues Saturdays through October 10. For information, visit strangebirdimmersive.com. $30.

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Some Tennessee Vols fans not impressed with Phillip Fulmer’s generosity in reducing his pay | Adams

I recently commended Tennessee athletic director Phillip Fulmer for voluntarily requesting a 15 percent salary reduction because of the financial challenges facing the university during the coronavirus pandemic.

Surprisingly, some of my astute readers weren’t impressed by Fulmer’s generosity.

Jerry wrote: “A true leader would cut his salary by 50%. Or even 75%, since the stadium is only going to be 25% full. Since becoming AD, I would say that Fulmer has spent money like a drunken sailor, but that would be an insult to both drunks and sailors.”

That’s rather harsh, but I will never discourage freedom of speech in this column.

Another reader was irked that Fulmer would take only a 15 percent pay cut when UT’s overall operating budget was being cut by 20 percent.

Jack wrote: “Of course, we know Fulmer is not the sharpest knife in the drawer. Someone at or near the top at UT, however, should point out (the difference between 15 and 20 percent) to Fulmer in no uncertain terms — but that probably will not happen.”

While I appreciate all contributions to this column, I couldn’t disagree more with Jack’s assessment of Fulmer’s degree of dullness.

He was fired as Tennessee football coach at the end of the 2008 season. But from the low point of his career, he worked his way back onto the university payroll as a special adviser to the UT president and later became the head of the same athletic department that fired him.

His comeback ranks as one of the great success stories in the history of college athletics.

Nonetheless, not all readers regard him as a hero for requesting a 15 percent pay cut.

Betty wrote: “Is this 15% pay cut that Fulmer is requesting for himself, 15% of one million (his total pay) or 15% of his base salary of $300,000? I bet it’s the latter. And that’s a big difference.”

John was just as skeptical.

He wrote: “Can you confirm if the pay cut is for all of his pay or just his salary? There is a big difference.”

Surely, Fulmer wouldn’t make a big deal of requesting a pay cut if it were only for his base salary. That would be terribly misleading, especially since he’s asking for fans to make donations to the program during these troubling times.

After all, 15 percent of $300,000 would be just $45,000. And since the reduction has yet to go into effect, it wouldn’t even be for a full fiscal year. That could amount to less than $40,000 for a year in which UT stands to lose millions of dollars.

There’s another side to this, though.

No matter how much money someone makes, it’s his prerogative to spend that money as he chooses. He’s not obligated to reduce his salary to help his employer.

Also, keep in mind that if Fulmer is so concerned over UT’s financial plight, he might request an additional reduction in pay if the situation should worsen.

And I doubt that all fans will quibble over the details: “Was it 15 percent of $1 million or $300,000?”

Instead, they’re probably just grateful that amid a financial crisis the leader of Tennessee’s athletic department offered to make a sacrifice for the benefit of his university.

John Adams is a senior columnist. He may be reached at 865-342-6284 or john.adams@knoxnews.com. Follow him at: twitter.com/johnadamskns.

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Basketball, Baseball Facing Racial Injustice Head On

On Sunday, the Astros postponed the final game of their three-game series against Oakland, but not for the reasons you may have thought. After an A’s player tested positive for COVID-19, teams called off the game as part of MLB protocols. You would be forgiven if you thought the cancellation was about something else or if you had forgotten about coronavirus altogether given the events of the previous week.

At the end of last week, NBA teams walked out of the playoffs following the death of Kenosha, Wisconsin man Jacob Blake at the hands of police. Reportedly, at least two NBA teams voted to end the season immediately.

Similarly, MLB players dramatically walked off fields around the league. On Friday, the Astros and A’s walked on the field for 42 seconds of silence before placing a pair of No. 42 jerseys and a Black Lives Matter shirt at home plate before leaving the field and calling off the game. The jersey bore the familiar number of Jackie Robinson, as the day that honors him each season was this weekend.

When the Astros were forced to skip the game on Sunday thanks to COVID, it felt almost anticlimactic. Even as lives across the world have been gripped by the pandemic, the NBA, inside its bubble, has remained virus free, while baseball has managed to tamp down early outbreaks that threatened to derail its already shortened season. Instead, the social upheaval surrounding the killing of Black men and women by police, like Blake, Breona Taylor and George Floyd, and the ensuing protests cast against the backdrop of a presidential election, has dominated conversations and actions among athletes.

Rightfully so.

Despite being widely criticized since Colin Kaepernick knelt during the National Anthem, players have continued to voice their anger and frustration with systemic racism in the country. And, at least in the Association, owners have embraced their approach, allowing displays like messaging on jerseys and even on the courts themselves.

But, this past week felt different. Black people around the country have said they feel exhausted by the near constant barrage of news related to police shootings and the emergence of white nationalist groups, never mind President Trump’s unwillingness to do much more than throw gasoline on the fire.

That exhaustion clearly reached athletes, who are often told to shut up and play sports. But, these are humans, mostly Americans and many Black Americans. Who could blame them? And they understand their fame gives them a unique platform to speak up and speak out, and their leagues are giving them the freedom to do so.

The end result was a set of initiatives to promote social justice in the NBA and go even further by supporting voting initiatives including opening 29 arenas, including Toyota Center, as voting centers during the general election. Players, coaches and owners appear to be poised to not just use their platform to raise voices, but to affect real change, including among their own — a recent report said only 20 percent of NBA players were registered to vote, something the league clearly aims to change this year.

Professional athletes are trying to turn their voices of protest into meaningful actions even with the pandemic continuing to threaten lives and livelihoods. What could be more American than that?

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Bo Bundy Talks Rancho Humilde Deal and Why Houston Artists Leave the City

Three years ago, the Houston Press ran a profile on local rapper Bo Bundy and the wild night he experienced protecting his flooded home with an AK-47 during the wake of Hurricane Harvey. Today, the Northside Vato might just be thanking the man upstairs for sending Hurricane Laura the other way as he makes final preparations for the biggest move of his life.

Earlier this month, Bo Bundy (Jorge Frias) announced he had signed with L.A.-based Rancho Humilde and would be relocating to California to begin the next chapter of his career. The move came as a surprise to some who considered the burgeoning Latino rap star a key member of the city’s next generation of homegrown talent. We spoke to Bundy about his big break, future plans, corridos tumbados and why Houston can’t seem to hold onto its artists.

“It would have took way longer,” says Bo, when asked where his career was heading before signing to Jimmy Humilde’s genre-bending West Coast imprint. Humilde, whose recent Forbes profile is the latest development in his master plan to become the Puff Daddy of the Regional Mexican genre, is assembling an Avengers caliber roster of crossover artists like Bundy, Legado 7 and Fuerzo Regida to reshape and redefine what regional Mexican represents.

The move was unwelcome for some local fans of Bundy’s brand of corrido-inspired Houston trap. While his bilingual verses, saturated Chicano references and Northside Mexican persona make him a viable crossover artist, his hard-hitting bars and solidly hip hop projects put him at odds with the tuba and mariachi-backed crooners on Rancho Humilde. Bundy is the lone rapper on a label full of corrido tumbado bands and singers. The distinction, however, doesn’t bother the former construction worker and project manager, who sees himself more culturally aligned with his new label-mates than his fellow Houston rappers.

“I studied the genre,” he says, “there’s a reason I’m the only rapper in the same lane as most of these artists on Rancho Humilde. The shows I was headlining, I was co-headlining with corrido singers.” Like the greater music industry, Mexican-American music, specifically the loosely-defined genre of regional Mexican, is moving away from traditional cultural barriers towards more genre-fluid, in this case, trap-inspired output. This melding of influences creates spaces for artists like Bo Bundy to thrive in settings once deemed incompatible with their music. Moreover, for Bo, it offers an avenue toward success he and others have found frustratingly unavailable in Houston.

When asked to weigh in on why artists head for greener coastal pastures, the “Uno Cuhh” rapper holds no punches. “It’s all a lack of fan support. Because we have the resources. There’s no reason for Houston not to be a big music city like L.A. and New York.” As Bundy explains, his experience in Houston was marked by both a lack of backing and support. “It’s a very, ‘on your own’ type shit. A lot of doors were closed to me here.”

Bo Bundy with Rancho Humilde co-founder Jimmy Humilde (center left).EXPAND

Bo Bundy with Rancho Humilde co-founder Jimmy Humilde (center left).

Photo by Rancho Humilde

While Bo never found the footing or cultivated the audience he sought locally, local was never the goal. “I never wanted to be a Houston rapper, I wanted to be an artist.” The distinction is often necessary for unorthodox rappers in a city with a deep-rooted and defining sound, one which, while iconic, enables some heavy-handed gate keeping from both fans and veterans.

Despite a polarized fan reaction to his big announcement, Bo maintains the vision hasn’t changed. “A lot of people say I took a shortcut, that I’m a sellout. That I’m taking the easy way out. But it was all part of the plan.” The 25-year-old says his goal was always to break into the corrido and regional market, that signing to Rancho Humilde was the dream all along. “I see where the sound is going to be in five years, and that’s where I’m going. I’m not meeting them where they’re at now.”

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This Week in Houston Food Events: Go Back to School at Tarka Indian Kitchen

Though social distancing is in effect with bars closed for in-house services and restaurants limited, the ever-strong Houston food community continues to truck on. This week, you can support local restaurants by carrying out or making reservations for dine-in service, try out Houston Restaurant Weeks before it comes to an end (on Labor Day), enjoy a Taco Tuesday collaboration and do Friday lunch.

Here’s a look at this week’s hottest culinary happenings:

All week long

Back to School Special at Tarka Indian Kitchen

From now until Thursday, September 10, Tarka Indian Kitchen, 721 West 19th, is running a Back to School special, offering 50-percent off a kid’s meal with a purchase of an adult entrée. The offer is only available online for rewards club members, but non-rewards members can redeem in-store. To redeem online or via app, add items to cart, hit checkout and discount will automatically apply. Mention the offer to the cashier to redeem in-store (the offer is not valid for third-party delivery).

Houston Restaurant Weeks

It’s your last full week of Houston Restaurant Weeks, which runs now through Labor Day to raise funds for the Houston Food Bank — honoring founder Cleverley Stone’s incredibly legacy, it has raised over $16.6 million to date. Local restaurants will be serving specially priced multi-course prix fixe menus for brunch, lunch and dinner, many of which will include takeout. Look out for a mix of both new and classic spots, including Eugene’s Gulf Coast Cuisine, Fung’s Kitchen, Guard and Grace, Kin Dee Thai Cuisine, Mastrantos, Peli Peli South African Kitchen, The Tasting Room, Rainbow Lodge and many more.

Tuesdays (in September)

Riel “Taco Tuesday Team-Up” at Tacos A Go Go

Tacos A Go Go continues its “Taco Tuesday Team-Up”, a monthly campaign encouraging support of the local restaurant community with a portion of proceeds benefiting I’ll Have What She’s Having. Each month, the taco kitchen will team up with a different restaurant to feature a one-of-a-kind taco on Taco Tuesday throughout the month, with a focus on partnering with woman-owned restaurants. Riel, owned by Mechelle Tran and chef Ryan Lachaine, is up next in September, with Lachaine’s tacos available at all four active Tacos A Go Go locations (Midtown, Heights, Oak Forest, Cinco Ranch).

Wednesday, September 2

50-Cent First Wednesday at The Kolache Shoppe Heights

Kolache Shoppe continues its 50th anniversary, offering 50-cent kolaches at its Heights Kolache Shoppe, 1031 Heights, on the first Wednesday of each month through December 2020. The offer is good the its $1.65 varieties of kolaches (such as small sausage, small sausage and cheese, peach, cream cheese) starting at 7 a.m. until sold out (limited to two dozen specially priced kolaches per party and excludes call-in orders).

Virtual Houston Press Menu of Menus Extravaganza

For the first time ever, our

Houston Press Menu of Menus Extravaganza

is going virtual, celebrating Houston’s culinary scene beginning at 7 p.m. Ticket holders will experience the Iron Fork competition chef face-off, as well as virtual cocktail demonstrations, food and cooking tips from

Peli Peli South African Kitchen

, a curated selection of savory and sweet food bites and premium alcohol, and swag (including an exclusive Menu of Menus card featuring savings at participating restaurants). This year,

One Fifth Mediterranean

chef de cuisine Matt Staph will represent our city in the Iron Fork competition, going up against Luke Rogers, executive chef at Savor in Dallas’ Klyde Warren Park. GA tickets are $49 plus fees and VIP tickets are $79 plus fees; and food and drink packets — there won’t be any perishables in the box — can be picked up on August 31 (VIP ticket holders will also be able to eat food from food trucks on site at the August 31 pickup party).

Wednesdays and Thursdays

Bars Across Houston Patio Pop-Up Series at One Fifth Houston (Wednesday) and Lucille’s (Thursday)

Lucille’s, 5512 La Branch, continues hosting its Thursday Patio Pop-Up series (6 to 10 p.m.), inviting local bar teams to take over the restaurant’s patio for a full evening of service and with the featured staff collecting 100-percent of the sales and tips generated by their curated cocktails. And now, One Fifth Mediterranean, 1658 Westheimer, has joined in on the giving and the fun with its own Wednesday nights (Lucille’s has made each pop-up reservation-only and implements maximum time caps on each reservation to help further manage distancing, and Chris Shepherd and his team plan to implement similar protocols at One Fifth). In addition to supporting bartenders across the city, both restaurants will give $1 for every cocktail sold to Lucille’s 1913, a nonprofit launched to provide meals to Houstonians in need, targeting the elderly in impoverished neighborhoods from Sunnyside to Acres Homes. Restaurants and bars interested in participating in the 1913 Pop-Up Program can contact Lucille’s 1913 at info@lucilles1913.org.

Thursdays

Virtual Wine Dinner with Roma

Roma, 2347 University, continues its Weekly Virtual Wine Dinner series, with a fun, interactive meal beginning at 7:30 p.m. Each setup includes three bottles of wine and a multi-course dinner to be picked up from 5 to 7 p.m., plus a Zoom link for the virtual meal hosted by wine guy Jeremy Parzen and with Italian winemakers as special guests. Cost is $119 per couple or $89 per individual.

Take a trip through Texas Hill Country with Friday lunch at State of Grace.EXPAND

Take a trip through Texas Hill Country with Friday lunch at State of Grace.

Photo by Julie Soefer

Friday, September 4

BBQ & Bubbles at 13 Celsius

Feges BBQ will be popping up at 13 Celsius, 3000 Caroline, for a “Ready to eat BBQ & Bubbles” event. Stayed tuned to its social media for details.

Texas Hill Country Friday Lunch at State of Grace

State of Grace, 3258 Westheimer, is now offering a Texas Hill Country-inspired lunch every Friday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Menu offerings include smoked pimento cheese ($9), deviled eggs ($9), grilled chicken salad ($16), pharmacy burger ($13), lobster roll ($28), spaghettini ($21), pansoti ($19), petite filet (6oz, $35), squash blossoms ($10), Szechuan eggplant ($7) and more. To place a lunch order to-go, call 832-942-5080.

New and ongoing specials

New tacos at Fly By Taco Co

The Fly By Taco Co pop up breakfast taco shop — which pops up at Max’s Wine Dive, 4720 Washington, Monday-Friday 7 to 11 a.m. and weekends 8 to 11 a.m. — has added two brand-new tacos to its menu. Priced at $3.75 each, the Choriqueso taco features pork chorizo, jack cheese and refried beans; and the Max & Jack Taco rocks breakfast sausage, scrambled eggs, cheddar cheese and pickled jalapeños. To order contact-free pickup, download the “Toast Take-Out & Delivery” and search for Fly By Taco Co.

“Pay It Forward” to the Teachers at Hopdoddy Burger Bar

Hopdoddy Burger Bar launched the Pay It Forward campaign in May 2020 to provide support
(and burgers) to healthcare and hospitality professionals in Houston and across all markets. Now, the burger joint has pivoted the program to support educators. For every burger purchased through September 17, Hopdoddy will donate one burger to teachers who are working to keep students safe as schools open, or to support parents participating in at-home learning. To participate, guests can use the promo code “Teacher” to donate a burger to a teacher when ordering online; and dine-in customers can let cashiers know they would like to “Buy One Give One” when checking out at any Hopdoddy location. Teacher and school nominations can be sent to marketing@hopdoddy.com.

Family Meal Pack at Pluckers Wing Bar

Pluckers Wing Bar is offering a Family Meal Pack to fuel sports fans this season, featuring a choice of holy macaroni or fried pickles, 15 bone-in wings, eight boneless wings, twos sides of mac and cheese, a side of tater tots, a side of fries, a brownie and a choice gallon beverage. The packs feed four to six for $65 (and guests can add on signature gallon cocktails mixes to-go, too). Open 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., Pluckers offers dine-in options and curbside pickup at all 22 locations across Texas and Louisiana and delivery at select locations.

Outdoor Tents, Dining and Sports Watching at Twin Peaks

Twin Peaks restaurants in Kirby (4527 Lomitas) and Webster (20931 Gulf Freeway) are now offering an outdoor dining experience under large, open-air tents during the pandemic. The tents come complete with cooling fans, socially distanced seating and multiple big screen TVs for sports fans. Hours are 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily (Friday-Saturday to midnight).

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Nuclear Regulatory Commission bans TVA executive over whistleblower retaliation

The nation’s nuclear power watchdog says a Tennessee Valley Authority executive’s retaliation against a safety whistleblower was so egregious he is banned from the industry for five years.

TVA Vice President Joseph Shea is barred from working for five years in any activities that require licensing by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the agency said in a news release. The agency said the penalty is warranted to protect the public.

Shea, the regulatory agency concluded, “played a significant role” in the 2018 firing of nuclear engineer Beth Wetzel after she repeatedly raised safety concerns about TVA’s nuclear power program.

The U.S. Department of Labor last year ruled TVA executives, including its corporate attorney, cooked up a fake reason to fire Wetzel after she criticized one of her bosses. TVA later brokered a secret settlement with her.

TVA spokesman Jim Hopson said the nation’s largest public power utility disagrees with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s decision and conclusions about Shea but hasn’t decided whether to appeal.

“We take this issue very seriously and respect the NRC’s decision,” Hopson said in a statement. “TVA previously investigated these events, which occurred several years ago, and did not reach the same conclusion as the NRC. We are continuing to evaluate the NRC’s notice and are evaluating our next steps.”

Shea remains an executive at TVA but is no longer serving as vice president over nuclear regulatory affairs, the post he held when Wetzel was fired.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission concluded Shea’s actions were intentional and the consequences for nuclear safety far-reaching.

The regulatory agency also is proposing to fine TVA slightly more than $300,000 in the Wetzel case and is considering sanctions against TVA executive Erin Henderson, who is accused of retaliating against Wetzel and soliciting Shea’s aid in getting her fired.

Attorney Alan Kabat, who represents Wetzel and a second TVA employee whom the NRC also ruled suffered retaliation for making safety complaints, praised the decision.

“We are pleased to see that the NRC vindicated the reports of our two clients,” Kabat said.

Billie Garde, who has filed complaints on behalf of a group of TVA nuclear safety oversight managers ousted from their jobs earlier this year, said Shea’s five-year ban was a “sad end to a long career in nuclear power” but a just decision.

“The finding of retaliation by Shea and another TVA senior director was significant,” Garde said. “It should be heeded as a message to the power plant management team.

“Retaliation is against the law,” she said. “It is against the law because retaliation against employees who raise concerns causes a chilling effect, which undermines safety.”

More fines, complaints pending

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission also has ruled TVA discriminated against a safety whistleblower at its Sequoyah nuclear power plant in Soddy-Daisy, Tennessee, in May 2018.

In that case, the agency ruled, TVA suspended the Sequoyah employee — who is not identified in the agency’s orders — after the employee filed safety complaints about the nuclear program there. TVA operates three nuclear power plants: Sequoyah; Browns Ferry in Athens, Alabama; and Watts Bar in Spring City, Tennessee.

“TVA discriminated against a former Sequoyah employee for engaging in a protected activity,” the agency order says.

The employee at the heart of that case resigned from TVA in August 2018 after months on leave, according to the order.

Former TVA nuclear oversight managers Melody Babb, Deanna Fultz and Mark Richerson also have filed complaints with the Labor Department and Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Prior coverage: Nuclear safety oversight workers accuse TVA bosses of silencing whistleblowers

They say TVA ousted them from their jobs in early 2019, disbanded an independent whistleblowing program known as the Employee Concerns Program, and publicly humiliated them to intimidate and silence whistleblowers.

TVA said in both internal and public announcements the independent whistleblowing program was ineffective and was being scrapped in favor of a new one in which whistleblowers take their safety complaints to their bosses.

Under the old program, employees could go to independent nuclear safety oversight managers with concerns about nuclear and radiological safety violations, and oversight managers would maintain the employees’ anonymity and launch their own investigation.

Under the new program, TVA’s new nuclear safety oversight managers will “ask the employee if they wish to remain anonymous or not” and then report the employees’ safety concerns to their bosses rather than independently investigate, according to TVA’s own presentation of the program to Sequoyah plant workers and previous statements issued by the utility.

TVA: New nuclear boss makes changes

TVA Chief Executive Jeff Lyash told Knox News on Thursday the utility’s current chief nuclear officer, Timothy Rausch, is taking steps to improve the working environment for TVA’s nuclear power workers.

Rausch, former senior vice president and chief nuclear officer for Talen Energy’s Susquehanna nuclear plant, was tapped to serve as TVA’s new chief nuclear officer in October 2018.

He replaced Mike Balduzzi, who had announced plans to retire. Rausch was in command when the nuclear Employee Concerns Program was scrapped and replaced.

“We’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback on that,” Lyash said Thursday. “We don’t see things the way (the NRC) sees it. There’s still an ongoing process here.”

TVA spokesman Hopson said both Shea and Henderson remain on the TVA payroll.

“As noted by the NRC, the cited individuals remain current TVA employees,” Hopson said in a statement. “As you may know, we remain in the early stages of the NRC process. Like TVA, the cited individuals have rights to pursue additional actions within the process and are likely evaluating their own next steps, as are we.

“We remain committed to a healthy and sustainable nuclear safety culture and safety conscious work environment,” he said. “We work on it every day and in recent years have taken multiple actions to strengthen our nuclear safety culture.”

Email Jamie Satterfield at jamie.satterfield@knoxnews.com and follow her on Twitter @jamiescoop. If you enjoy Jamie’s coverage, support strong local journalism by subscribing for full access to all our content on every platform.

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‘A maze that people can’t escape’: Limited options for TN workers who contract COVID-19 on the job

Before the COVID-19 liability bill passed on Aug. 13, its proponents reassured the public and fellow legislators that the bill’s tougher requirements to file pandemic-related lawsuits against businesses wouldn’t completely block sick workers from financial help.

The law doesn’t affect workers’ compensation insurance, they said, leaving it as the only apparent avenue for workers who contract COVID-19 on the job to seek compensation.

But critics argue that workers’ compensation is a system fraught with barriers to employees and more equipped to process claims of injuries than illnesses like COVID-19, leaving workers unlikely to receive the money they need to stay afloat while recovering.

“I’m worried that we’ve created a maze that people can’t escape, a flow chart that leads to failure in all directions,” Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, told The Tennessean.

“If workers are concerned that their workplace is unsafe, and want to stay home, the state refuses to provide unemployment. If the worker contacts TOSHA (a state agency that monitors workplace safety), the response is, that agency has no authority to regulate the spread of germs in the workplace,” Yarbro explained. “If they call the governor’s office about the Tennessee Pledge, the answer is, ‘it’s voluntary.’ If they try to file a lawsuit, they’re precluded and have to seek workers’ compensation, and if they seek workers’ compensation, they may still be out of luck depending on how the … policy is written.”

From March 1 through Aug. 16, Tennessee insurers approved 1,226 of the 2,081 total workers’ compensation claims associated with COVID-19 — just under 59%, according to state data. 

As the pandemic’s impact unfurled, Tennessee programs meant to protect workers were largely unprepared to handle the scope of the economic and public health crises.

When hundreds of thousands of laid-off and furloughed Tennesseans applied for unemployment insurance, the state’s system crashed and later left thousands waiting weeks or months to receive benefits without income or job prospects. More than 500 complaints to TOSHA about employers’ alleged failure to follow COVID-19 safety protocols resulted in zero citations for alleged violations leading to employees contracting “work-related illness” — employers instead received letters reiterating voluntary state and federal guidelines. 

With the exception of local orders in Tennessee’s metropolitan cities, there are no enforceable regulations to hold businesses accountable.

Though the state has taken steps to improve its unemployment system, state legislators have been hesitant to follow in the footsteps of other states and pass legislation mandating pandemic workplace safety standards or simplifying the workers’ compensation program for employees who contract COVID-19, fearing such measures would harm Tennessee’s already struggling businesses.

Mary-Kathryn Harcombe, legal director of the TN Immigrant & Refugee Rights Coalition, worries that the lack of options is instead leading to suffering for Tennessee’s workers, who could lose income, their jobs, or their health insurance if they get sick.

‘We’re not going through any of those doors’

Workers’ compensation insurance provides payments to employees who are injured or fall ill on the job to help cover the costs of medical care, rehabilitation, lost wages during recovery and in some cases, long-term compensation.

In Tennessee, businesses with five or more employees (or one employee for construction companies) are required to have workers’ compensation insurance, unless they meet exemptions.

COVID-19 posed challenges to several states’ workers’ compensation programs, some of which do not cover “ordinary diseases of life,” like the flu. Tennessee is among the states that list “occupational diseases” as potentially covered injuries if they meet certain criteria, though eligibility is determined based on medical proof on a case-by-case basis in the Court of Workers’ Compensation Claims. The burden is on the employee to prove that their job contributed more than 50% to the injury or illness, considering all other possible causes.

Contract tracing evidence does suggest that workplaces are major sites of exposure for COVID-19 cases. In Nashville, 21% of cases from Aug. 6 to Aug. 14 were traced back to workplaces, second only to household transmission at 26.5%. Workplaces have been a top site of exposure in Nashville for several weeks, health department data shows.

Harcombe is quick to point out that people who are exposed to the virus at work are also likely to bring it home to their families.

“There’s no clear way to show that COVID-19 is an occupational disease,” she said, and workers typically do not have access to lawyers that can help them make their claim. 

At least 17 states have attempted to ease this burden on workers by issuing orders or laws to expand and clarify coverage of COVID-19, and several more have considered similar actions. 

Arkansas classified COVID-19 as an occupational disease, removing one hurdle for sick employees.

Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear issued an executive order stating several categories of front line employees (including grocery workers and first responders, among others) are entitled to temporary disability payments during their quarantine period, provided that the worker can show they were exposed to COVID-19 at work and they were removed by a physician’s orders.

At least 12 other states have issued similar rules, and all federal employees who interact closely with the public and develop COVID-19 are entitled to workers’ compensation under the Federal Employees Compensation Act.

Yarbro proposed a bill on Aug. 11 that would make clear that COVID-19 is an occupational disease in Tennessee and shift the burden of proof that the illness came from outside of the workplace to the employer if a workplace suffered an outbreak (defined as 10% of workers testing positive over a 60-day period for large companies, or at least 10 people testing positive for smaller businesses). 

The bill died in the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee, voted down 7-1.

“I don’t particularly care which way it’s addressed,” Yarbro said of the bill’s defeat. “I think that you could do this through an executive order just requiring businesses to adopt minimal safety standards. You could also do it through providing TOSHA with rule-making authority and the ability to investigate workplaces that are not adhering to basic, common-sense standards. But we’re not going through any of those doors.”

He said he believes most businesses want to do the right thing, but systems do not usually depend on everyone choosing that path.

“We’re asking people to, in some cases, undertake expensive precautionary measures out of the goodness of their heart,” Yarbro said.

Cost concerns

Yarbro’s bill drew concern from Sen. Jack Johnson, R-Franklin, who said he was “nervous about creating the nexus with regard to workers’ compensation” because knowledge of the disease is still developing, and he feared “bogging down” the workers’ compensation system.

From March 1 through Aug. 9, Tennessee received 35,254 first reports of injury for all causes, significantly less than the 42,260 reports received during the same period in 2019. Not all first reports will become claims.

Of the 35,254 reports, 1,815 were related to COVID-19, and 740 pandemic-related reports were denied. Denials can be overturned through an appeal or after investigation, according to state department of labor spokesman Chris Cannon.

Insurance industry experts do expect that COVID-19 illnesses will ultimately cause the volume of claims to surpass workers’ compensation projections for 2020, according to Insurance Information Institute spokesperson Mark Friedlander. 

“Most likely, we’re going to see significant impacts on profitability for workers’ compensation insurers,” typically one of the insurance industry’s most profitable lines, Friedlander told The Tennessean.

Sen. Paul Bailey, R-Sparta, suggested potentially revisiting the idea in January.

“In my opinion, what we would see is some stifling of the economy if we move forward with this type of legislation, because that would ultimately cause employers’ workers’ compensation to rise because of the unknown,” Bailey said.

Employers nationwide are concerned that workers’ compensation legislation due to COVID-19 would lead to “significant” premium increases for employers, according to Friedlander.

“Some employers and insurers have raised concerns that this will increase insurance costs for employers at a time when businesses already face significant financial challenges,” he said.

But according to the National Council on Compensation Insurance and the Insurance Information Institute, workers’ compensation rates being developed for 2021 rely on historical, pre-pandemic data, so the cost of COVID-19 claims will not be a factor in next year’s rates. 

Friedlander noted that Congress has not taken any action that would change the workers’ compensation system.

For Harcombe, the debate comes down to choice and responsibility. Individuals can choose to reduce their COVID-19 exposure by avoiding bars and dining in restaurants, and in some cases, working from home. But front line workers, who are disproportionately people of color, often cannot choose to prioritize their health over their paycheck.

“Government isn’t about, or shouldn’t be about, protecting insurers,” Harcombe said. “It shouldn’t be about finding the cheapest way to do things. It should be about protecting the people in our society who need protecting, and in this case, I can’t imagine any people more obviously in need of protection than the essential workers who have been putting their own health and the health of their families on the line for the benefit of all of us for the past four months.”

Reach Cassandra Stephenson at ckstephenson@tennessean.com or at (731) 694-7261. Follow Cassandra on Twitter at @CStephenson731.

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