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Sullivan must develop own reopening plan

J. H. Osborne • Apr 20, 2020 at 7:45 PM

BLOUNTVILLE — While Gov. Bill Lee announced today that he will not extend his statewide “safer at home” order past April 30, the fine print in the announcement noted that only applies to 89 of Tennessee’s 95 counties. And Sullivan County was not among them.

Why?

The simple answer is Sullivan County, like the five other counties excluded from Lee’s announcement, has its own regional health department. And that means the decision to end or extend the “safer-at-home” order is one that must be made locally. How to reopen businesses will also be a local decision.

From the Tennessee Department of Health’s website:

• Each county in Tennessee has a county health department, with some larger counties having multiple facilities. A total of 89 primarily rural county health departments operate under the direct supervision of the Tennessee Department of Health, headquartered in Nashville, while the six larger, urban counties — Madison, Shelby, Knox, Davidson, Hamilton and Sullivan — have health departments that operate under local governance but work closely with the Tennessee Department of Health.

• Directors of the 89 primarily rural health departments are appointed by the commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Health. Directors of the six larger, urban county health departments are appointed by their county leadership.

What Now?

The Times News spoke to Sullivan County Mayor Richard Venable shortly after Lee’s announcement Monday afternoon.

Venable said he’d been on a conference call with other county mayors from across the state with Lee and he’d noticed, of course, that Lee said 89, not 95 counties, but Lee didn’t elaborate on the six excluded counties.

A later press release from Lee’s office noted “Lee announced the order for Tennesseans to remain at home will expire April 30, 2020.The vast majority of businesses in 89 of Tennessee’s 95 counties will be allowed to re-open on May 1, with some slated to open on Monday, April 27.” It also stated “The Lee Administration is working directly with local officials and health departments in Tennessee’s major metropolitan areas (Shelby, Madison, Davidson, Hamilton, Knox and Sullivan counties) as they plan their re-open strategies.”

Venable said after the announcement he spoke with Sullivan County Regional Health Department Director Gary Mayes and that in the next few days, Venable, Mayes and Dr. Stephen May — medical director for the Sullivan County Regional Health Department — will review local numbers, seek input from other local elected officials and business leaders, and begin to develop a plan specific to Sullivan County regarding reopening things.

Venable said Lee indicated the governor’s office will release more information on Wednesday or Thursday on what the other 89 counties will be free to do beginning Monday, April 27. Venable said Lee mentioned an outline that would perhaps see certain types of businesses reopen, followed by others, and some would have customer capacity rules to continue social distancing practices — a restaurant with normal seating for 80, for example, might only be able to service 40 patrons, and state health officials would be monitoring them.

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