On Monday the Knox County Health Department announced that they had learned from the county law office that the Knox County Board of Health was required to create policy.

In other words: the phased re-opening plans put out so far have no legal basis because they were put out by the health department instead of the Board of Health.

After nearly an hour and a half of discussion, the board of health unanimously voted to follow the Tennessee Pledge instead of writing local guidance. Knox County will continue on the current guidance for two weeks to give KCHD staff time to re-train on the state guidelines.

The board will continue to meet every two weeks to review the benchmarks KCHD has created and make recommendations as needed.

The Real Quick Take

You want our fastest take? It doesn’t matter. We wrote a post on May 20th that said:

This is a realpolitik — short of turning into a police state the governmental shutdowns rely primarily on voluntary compliance…

The public orders matter far less than what people choose to do, on their own, voluntarily. It also remains up to individual persons to wear masks, wash hands, physically distance while out, etc. It also remains up to them to choose to dine-in, or do curbside pickup, at their favorite restaurant…

JM Addington May 20th, 2020 Post

By Memorial Day Knox County was already moving faster than its own plans dictated, we believe, because that is simply what people were doing in real life.

A Quick Analysis

Dr. Buchanan was actually the one to introduce the idea into the meeting. Her primary concerns were, (1) many businesses operate both in Knox County under one set of guidelines and in another county under a separate set of guidelines (every adjacent county), (2) this frees up her staff to focus on their core activities, which do not include writing community guidance at this level, and (3) she believes that the state staff has better capacity to write out guidance for a variety of businesses.

Those are solid points.

In particular, as a business owner who works primarily with other businesses it can be crazy trying to stay in compliance with different levels of guidance. Our May 20th post also went over how the economics will naturally push everyone towards the lowest common denominator.

For now, Knox County voluntarily gives up the power to put in place our own local policies. However, the board can always overrule itself and put more or less restrictive policies in place in the future.

We highly suspect that this decision is driven by Knox County’s low caseload. It would be a more difficult decision to make if we had caseloads such as Davidson, Shelby or Hamilton counties. We also believe that a higher caseload would pressure the board to put more restrictive measures than what is in place statewide. At the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis Knox County did just that and it may be a big reason cases stayed so low in East Tennessee.

Is this more or less restrictive?

Dr. Buchanan maintained that the state’s guidance was close enough to Knox County’s to make it relatively easy to switch. We are not familiar enough with the Tennessee Pledge to say one way or another for specific industries.

The biggest change is probably enforcement. The Knox County phased plan had “musts” in it. The Tennessee Pledge is filled with “shoulds” and “mays,” and Governor Lee was clear at his press conferences that he was going to rely on voluntary compliance over enforcement. The Knox County Board of Health did not discuss this, however, like the Governor, Dr. Buchanan has expressed more interest in voluntary compliance than enforcement.

The Final Take-Away

The guidance, the orders, everything is close enough as things currently stand that it’s hard to think that it will make a real difference in caseload, especially in the near term. The real test will most likely come with the fall, when COVID-19 is widely expected to flare up again. However, how we do then depends more on our planning today and over the summer than the minutia of guidance.