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As debate rages on whether to close bars to stop virus spread, city, county mayors offer differing views

On Wednesday afternoon, the Knox County Board of Health will take up the question as part of its regular meeting.

KNOXVILLE, Tennessee — Bars -- and whether to close them temporarily -- is a prime topic of debate right now as health authorities across the nation wrestle with rising COVID-19 case numbers.

On Wednesday afternoon, the Knox County Board of Health will take up the question as part of its regular meeting.

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Bars have become a focus of debate because they often involve people engaging in close contact, a prime way experts say the virus can spread.

Health Department Director Dr. Martha Buchanan said she doesn't know what the board made up mostly of medical professionals will do. Earlier this month, the group decided, against legal advice, to impose a local mask mandate.

The Knoxville and Knox County mayors differ on what should be done.

Gov. Bill Lee has declined to order bars closed statewide. He's also declined to impose a statewide mask mandate, preferring to let local governments dictate their own strategies for dealing with the coronavirus.

On Monday, Dr. Deborah Birx, a member of the White House task force that's addressing the virus, came to Tennessee and announced that she thinks bars should be closed for two weeks. She met with Lee as part of her visit.

Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon promptly endorsed Birx's idea in a tweet.

While the mayor doesn't have the authority on her own to require the change, according to a city statement, "As Mayor Kincannon said last week, mask mandates are not enough. The mayor continues to urge leaders -- on all levels -- to take actions that reflect the urgency of this crisis."

Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs, who also is on the health board, thinks closing businesses goes too far. His was the sole "no" vote when the board decided to mandate masks.

Jacobs is but one vote on the board when it comes to masks and business closures, his office said in a statement to area media groups.

He thinks the public should follow the five recommended guidelines to stop the spread of the virus, including wearing a mask, frequent hand-washing, and practicing social distancing.

Credit: WBIR

“As was previously stated, Mayor Jacobs doesn’t have the authority to introduce strategies for local businesses, but he does not believe it is the right call to shut down businesses,” the mayor’s office said in its statement. “Rather, we should implore our business community to be responsible in their monitoring of the five core actions. On the Board of Health, the mayor will always cast his vote in support of our citizens, their livelihoods and their personal liberties.

Regarding local bars, the board’s agenda for Wednesday states it will “review and discuss possible action.”

When asked Monday about it in a press briefing, Buchanan said, “That’ll be something the board will discuss and decide."

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