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Knox Co. leaders vote to strip Board of Health's power to mandate masks and curfews

The commission voted to move the board to an advisory role and give its regulatory power to KCHD Director Dr. Martha Buchanan.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — The Knox County Board of Health will no longer be able to mandate masks and curfews after the Knox County Commission voted 8-3 Monday night to transfer its regulatory power to the Knox County Health Department.

Commission Chairman Larsen Jay voted against the measure alongside commissioner Dasha Lundy from District 1 and Courtney Durrett from District 2 -- who represent two of the most densely populated districts within the city of Knoxville.

KCHD Director Dr. Martha Buchanan will now have the sole authority to make decisions regarding mask mandates, curfews, and other pandemic-related public health rules. The Board of Health will continue to exist in an advisory role to Buchanan as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to wane and the number vaccinated increases. 

After several people publicly voiced their opposition to the board, Commissioner Larsen Jay spoke in support of it -- saying he was worried about the consequences of dissolving its power amid the ongoing pandemic that continues to pose serious public health risks, and the effect this could have on the county's ability to respond to future public health crises.  

"I think what you’ll see are efforts to discredit her, force her to resign or restructure the health department by putting someone above her. I hope that doesn’t happen," said Jay. "What I really worry about is what’s next."

Buchanan had recommended the commission to keep the board's power intact. With decisions now falling on her shoulders, she said she will continue to embrace the responsibility as it was before the board had been established in the early months of the pandemic.

She said she'll continue pushing forward and do what is best for the community. "This whole time I said I will continue to follow public health science and make the recommendations I think are most appropriate for our community to keep our people safe. I’m committed to this job as I’ve said many times."

"Dr. Buchanan continues to recommend the Board of Health function as it has with its current authority. She values their insight and multi-disciplinary perspective," KCHD said. "If authority is transferred to Dr. Buchanan, she will embrace it just as she did at the beginning of the pandemic before it was opined that the Board held the authority. Regardless, the health department will continue to promote public health best practices and science-based interventions in the interest of protecting all Knox County residents."

KCHD said it will wait until the ordinance is finalized before announcing if Buchanan will implement any changes to current pandemic rules.