SHELBY COUNTY, Tenn. (WMC) - The Shelby County Health Department announced Tuesday new restrictions aimed at bars and restaurants. The enforcement action comes after increasing cases of COVID-19 and a three-day visit to Shelby County last week by federal officials and the Centers for Disease Control.
"We are going to close bars again effective tomorrow, and we are going to establish a time frame for restaurants to close," said Alisa Haushalter, Shelby County Health Department Director.
Officials said bars in Shelby County will close for the foreseeable future Wednesday at midnight. Restaurants can remain open but must end service at 10 p.m. daily.
“The restaurants have been gaining traction,” said Ernie Mellor, president of the Memphis Restaurant Association. “I don’t think 10 o’clock is out of the question. I was pushing them to get 11 or 12, but I think 10 o’clock is reasonable.”
Bars can continue serving food, but officials said bars for “entertainment only” are the ones that have to shut down. Establishments must be closed by 10 p.m.
“What we know is you really can’t drink at a bar when you have a mask on. You have to take it off. And then when you take it off, you’re talking with other people. That’s high risk for transmission. We have to reduce those settings where it’s high risk for transmission,” said Haushalter.
Day to day cases of COVID-19 have continued to increase in the county since Memorial Day. The Shelby County Health Department and the city of Memphis have since mandated masking in public.
The Memphis-area was one of 10 regions selected by federal officials and the CDC for targeted interventions that could slow case growth. The federal team spent last Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday in Memphis.
"Many of the things that we are discussing were based on the recommendations and follow up from that particular team," said Haushalter.
Haushalter said if the newly-announced interventions do not work, the department could take more drastic steps like closing restaurant dining rooms altogether or scaling back the operations for gym facilities.
"It's a combination of those things that led us to bars first, and then having restaurants close earlier, and then we will step backwards from there," she said.
Mellor called the new restrictions a setback but said dining rooms closing again would be devastating.
“I think for the health department that’s a last resort,” he said. “I don’t think that’s something they want to do. But they have that card if they have to play it.”
Haushalter said hospitalizations are currently at their highest point in the pandemic with more than 300 people receiving care.
She expects case numbers to grow in the coming weeks as a result of the increased community transmission that’s already taken place. Spikes of nearly 400 new cases a day were recorded in the days surrounding the Fourth of July weekend.
“The cases we see now were transmitted two weeks ago, and we anticipate two weeks from now, we will have a significant number of cases that will be very difficult to manage from a hospital and public health perspective,” she said. “This is not out of control, and we all have things that we can do personally and things that we can do as employers and leaders to reduce transmission.”
Tourism officials said Tuesday they support the health department's new recommendations for bars and restaurants, noting the community is at a critical point in the pandemic.
“I really can’t worry about closing earlier, shutting down bars, is going to hurt businesses. If we don’t get this right, we’re going to have bigger problems than a few weeks or a couple months of revenue,” said Kevin Kane, president & CEO of Memphis Tourism. “If they want us to wear three masks, we should do whatever they ask us to do. They know what they’re talking about. They’re on our side.”