Tennessee House Speaker wants to scale back authority of Shelby County, 5 other health departments

Controversy surrounding COVID-19 restrictions in Shelby County

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - A powerful Tennessee lawmaker wants to limit the authority of the six metropolitan health departments across the state, including the Shelby County Health Department.

A spokesperson for Tennessee House Speaker Cameron Sexton says the speaker believes these health departments, which have their own authority and issue their own health directives independently from the state, have too much control.

Doug Kufner, a spokesman for Sexton’s office, says the speaker believes health departments like SCHD should advise local elected officials but not be the authority.

Kufner says Sexton will ask the Tennessee General Assembly to scale back the autonomy next year.

“Tennessee has safely reopened, and many businesses have regained their economic momentum," Sexton said in a statement to WMC. "That is not the case in our six larger counties like Davidson County, which is the slowest recovering and has one of the highest unemployment rates. Traveling across Tennessee, I have heard from many people and businesses in our larger counties who are all frustrated with the lack of communication from these unelected bureaucrats. Their restrictive policies only continue to hamper our statewide recovery efforts and cause further damage to the Tennessee business community.”

Earlier this week, Gov. Bill Lee lifted COVID-19 restrictions in the other 89 counties across the state, which don’t have their own health departments. Shelby, Davidson and four other counties are exempt from the governor’s order.

Thursday the Shelby County Health Department said they anticipate loosening COVID-19 restrictions further in a new health directive next week, which could include an extension of restaurant hours, something the Memphis Restaurant Association has been pushing for. Currently, service must end at 10 p.m. nightly.

SCHD Director Alisa Haushalter said much of the time the role of public health operates behind the scenes in ensuring communities have clean water, restaurants operate with sanitary conditions and diseases are controlled.

“During the pandemic, our authority has become much more visible. And I understand for a lot of people there is a questioning of our authority and why we have it,” she said Thursday. “We actually use that authority each and every day outside of the pandemic to address issues in our community.”

Health department officials said if the law is changed, they’ll act accordingly.

“We will do whatever the law says we are supposed to do. But I want people to understand the role of public health and how we serve this community every day, not just during the pandemic,” she said.

Copyright 2020 WMC. All rights reserved.