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Crowded bar near UT campus raises concerns about public health issue

A video was taken Thursday night around 10:30 p.m. of a bar near UT's campus. The patio was packed with students and there was a line out the door.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — A scene on Cumberland Avenue had some viewers and readers reaching out to WBIR concerned about the spread of COVID-19.

A video was taken Thursday night around 10:30 p.m. of a bar near UT's campus. The patio was packed with students and there was a line out the door. 

Right now, bars in Knox County have a 10 p.m. curfew. That regulation expires in two weeks.

A viewer also reached out about another similar site.

Credit: WBIR

"They're open, they're selling, they are doing what they do. Owners have decided they've gotta try to stay in business," said Knox County Board of Health member Dr. Patrick O'Brien.

The board has talked about the crowded scenes at bars near UT for a few weeks. However, they've also spent a lot of time wondering what steps they can take about it.

Many of the bars near UT campus identify as restaurants. According to Board of Health members, owners have told law enforcement 50% of sales come from food.

A law enforcement agency could cite a business for violating the Board of Health's orders, but that's under the discretion of the agency.

Legal counsel said the health director could go above that power, but Knox County hasn't moved in that direction just yet. 

Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon said in a statement:

"These pictures provide stark evidence that many people are not taking this pandemic seriously and it’s incredibly frustrating. We can and must do better. If we want to keep UT open, if we want our children to be able to learn in person, we need to do more to protect the public health during this unprecedented pandemic. It is time to go back to the drawing board and for all leaders to ask themselves if they are doing enough to protect the health and well-being of our community."

But Scott West, who owns numerous bars and restaurants in Market Square, said bars should be able to open.

"You can't stay closed forever and have a livelihood," he said. "That's the issue. There has to be some sort of reopening."

He's waited more than six months to open some of his bars, delaying some due to increasing cases at UT. 

For those following the 10 p.m. curfew, West said lifting it would allow crowds to spread out. He believes he can do it responsibly while hoping others will follow along. 

"We'll reduce the number of people in one location," he said. "Be as careful as you can be and let's hope we can get through this thing."

The health department also responded to the video from last night: 

"These photos are very concerning. To help mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in our community, we urge businesses to follow the Tennessee Pledge, including recommendations for restaurants and bars, as well as recommendations and regulations from the Knox County Board of Health.

We are also urging students to think about the long-term ramifications of their behavior. By not following the Five Core Actions, they are putting not only their health at risk, but also the health of those around them, some of whom may be at a higher risk for complications from the virus. No one wants to be responsible for making another individual extremely ill.

We know socialization is a large part of the college experience and we understand students’ frustrations. By maintaining at least six feet of distance and wearing a mask, socialization can continue without the high risk of transmission. This school year will look and feel different, and we know it won’t be easy. But, the sooner everyone follows the Five Core Actions, inside and outside the classroom, the better off our entire community will be."