Knox County Board of Health members discussed amending an established 10 p.m. bar curfew to include businesses that allow patrons to bring in their own alcohol, but tabled the discussion for another meeting.
Essentially, the new rule would close a loophole that allows so-called “brown bag” businesses to function as bars after 10 p.m. just because clients brought in their own booze.
The board also stopped short of ending alcohol sales at restaurants at 10 p.m., too, after hearing claims that Knox County residents were continuing to drink there after the hour bars are forced to close.
Dr. Jack Gotcher said board members have received emails from bar owners who said their business is simply shifting to restaurants after 10 p.m. He asked for data to back this up.
“I would hope the restaurants are not exploiting their business model,” he said.
The board did, however, extend the current 10 p.m. bar curfew for another two weeks, with two members voting against the extension.
Next week, the board could again discuss limiting hours restaurants can serve alcohol to align them with bars, as well as the “brown bag” loophole.
Earlier this summer, as the community saw a spike in cases and prepared to welcome back University of Tennessee students, board members voted to closed all bars, which were defined as establishments that make a majority of their revenue from alcohol.
A few days after the ban went into effect, the board pulled back dramatically and allowed bars to reopen as long as they adhered to a 10 p.m. curfew.
Some concerns linger, especially related to the potential of college students spreading coronovirus by socializing without masks at bars.
“In interviewing UT-associated cases, anecdotally we’re being told bars on the Strip are ignoring curfew,” said Dr. Martha Buchanan, director of the Knox County Board of Health. She said UT Chancellor Donde Plowman confirmed that students are finding places – like restaurants – that serve alcohol after 10 p.m.
Mask mandate continues
After several residents spoke at the meeting to ask the board to end the county’s mask mandate, members declined to do so.
Board members, most of them medical professionals, countered rumors about masks, specifically that they cause adverse effects for wearers. Mask wearing helps stop the spread of disease when an infected person comes in contact with others.
“This seems do obvious to us, but I’m not sure it’s always so obvious to people in the community,” said board member Dr. Maria Hurt.
Over the course of the pandemic, Knox County has reported nearly 7,000 COVID-19 cases and 59 deaths.
While many of the county’s benchmarks had hit red warning status earlier this summer, they have remained green except for hospital capacity, which is yellow and will remain yellow as hospitalizations are “slowly trending up,” Buchanan said.
Buchanan said two of the benchmarks – sustained number of new cases and sustained testing and testing turnaround times – are “cautious greens” and she would expect them to turn yellow next week, mostly due to schools and the University of Tennessee returning to in-person learning.
For perspective, Knox County saw a surge in fatalities right as the community reopened after a relatively strict lockdown this spring. From March through June, five Knox County residents died. Then sick people began to die almost daily.
Thirty-four in July. Nineteen in August.
The summertime surge means there have been 10 times as many COVID-19 deaths in the past two months compared to the rest of the pandemic.