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COVID Spike Delays Next Reopening Phase as Officials Address Protests

The Shelby County Health Department


Nearly 200 new COVID-19 infections on Tuesday marked the largest one-day increase since Shelby County’s outbreak began. Although testing has also gone up, the spike in cases puts the brakes on further lifting capacity restrictions for businesses.

Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland has postponed the third phase of the city’s ‘Back to Business’ plan until at least June 16, preventing movie theaters, auditoriums, sports arenas and bars from opening. That next step was planned for next Monday. 

At Tuesday's COVID-19 press briefing, Health Officer Bruce Randolph indicated that the county would likely follow Strickland’s move.

“Based on the trend that we see now, and the information that we see now, I do not think that we can move into phase three at this moment,” he said.

Randolph cited additional social interactions as the cause of increased COVID transmission, not blaming it on one event or period such as Memorial Day weekend. While facial coverings are still only encouraged by the Health Department, Randolph says worsening numbers could lead to stronger measures.

“If our numbers continue to increase, we will have no other choice but to mandate that a facial covering would be required of everyone when you are out of your home and you are in the presence of someone else or entering into an establishment,” he said. 

Also at the briefing, County Mayor Lee Harris focused his remarks on racial injustice in light of recent protests across the nation and in Memphis. He said the “unified effort” to combat the current public health crisis was “unimaginable just a few weeks ago” and needs to be replicated to tackle inequalities in the criminal justice system. 

“Just think, people right now, all across our community, what they’re doing to pull together in the face of COVID,” he said. “We are making sacrifices. We’re working hard to make our neighbors and our families safe.”

Lee highlighted reform initiatives already underway. He said recent cash bail changes have helped reduce the county’s jail population to record low numbers, but more needs to be done.

“The other piece of the puzzle is, how do you...get out non-violent offenders that have already been ordered by a judge to be in that facility,” he said.

He added that the county’s jail is currently not holding non-violent offenders, but advocacy groups say some detainees still remain just because they cannot afford their bail.

Lee also noted his proposal to prohibit the county government from asking applicants about their criminal histories for many positions. 

“People of color, particularly African American men, are too often caught up in a criminal justice system that tags them for life,” he said. “The system devastates the ability of too many African American men to  ever fully enjoy the benefits of living in the greatest country on earth."

The mayor offered an invitation for groups and residents to come forward with more reform ideas. 

“Disrupting the status quo is never easy,” he said. “In Shelby County we’ve had hundreds of protestors demand to be heard and who have lifted up important concerns.”