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Tennessee governor wants full capacity at sporting events as SCHD looking to end pandemic mandates

Updated: May. 5, 2021 at 4:59 PM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Tennessee Governor Bill Lee is making another push to end pandemic protocols across the state.

This time, he’s giving his input on what he’d like to see at sporting events. This is happening as the Shelby County Health (SCHD) Department said the next health directive will likely move from mandating masks and other restrictions to recommending them.

Lee has said the COVID-19 pandemic is no longer a public health emergency. He’s already requested counties’ mask mandates and business restrictions be lifted by Memorial Day. Now, he’s suggesting sporting events open to full capacity.

In a tweet Wednesday morning, Lee said, “It’s time. Indoor and outdoor sporting events should happen without caps on attendance or other arbitrary measures.”

In Memphis, the Redbirds had their first game Tuesday with about a quarter of capacity allowed and masks mandated. The Grizzlies have been playing at FedEx Forum this season with masks and minimum capacity.

The Shelby County Board of Health advised health leaders that now could be an appropriate time to move toward recommending pandemic protocols like masks and not mandating them.

“I think it’s much more stable now,” said Shelby County Board of Health member Dr. Jon McCullers. “We’re much more comfortable with where we are. We’re not seeing a big surge right now and many people are vaccinated. A lot of these rules, in particular mandatory rules, probably need to be relaxed.”

SCHD has approved current plans for different sporting events like those at AutoZone Park and FedEx Forum. Doctors have continued to say outdoor activities are relatively safe, but Baptist Infectious Disease Specialist Dr. Steve Threlkeld is torn on the idea of full capacity.

“What I’m very comfortable saying is we’re probably very safe in outdoor events where we’re not completely packed at full capacity,” Threlkeld said. “Whether it should be half capacity or so forth, I don’t think we know the answer to that.”

Doctors said busy indoor events still pose a threat for virus transmission, especially if you’re unvaccinated.

“If the health department lifts restrictions and changes the language to strongly recommend, they’re going to strongly recommend you don’t have a full stadium and if you do have a full stadium, they’re going to recommend unvaccinated people don’t go to the game,” McCuller said.

That’s exactly what it appears SCHD is looking to do. Tuesday, the reestablished Shelby County Board of Health had its first public meeting. There, the SCHD and officials like Mayor Lee Harris sought the board’s advice on its new health directive.

For the last month, McCullers, who sits on the board with three other people, has been telling SCHD to stay the course when it comes to business restrictions and mask directives.

“We have seen a bump up about a month ago in the number of cases and that was due to the variant,” McCullers said. “We have seen many more young people in the hospital and deaths in young people than we had seen earlier in the pandemic. So, it was very worrisome.”

But now, McCullers said cases are starting to become stable. Shelby County is averaging around 130 cases a day over the last seven days, and more than 317,000 people are vaccinated.

McCullers said he felt better saying masks and business restrictions do not need to be mandatory during Tuesday’s Shelby County Board of Health public meeting.

“We’re going to strongly recommend in certain circumstances you’ll continue to take the precautions, but if people feel comfortable without the precautions, particularly if they’re vaccinated, maybe now is the time to move forward,” McCullers told WMC Wednesday.

The health directive will be released May 12 with an effective date of May 15.

Requests for comment from AutoZone Park and FedEx Forum regarding Lee’s tweet have not been returned.

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