Tennessee House speaker looks to roll back power of health departments like Shelby County’s

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee House Speaker Cameron Sexton is looking to roll back the power of local health departments during the next legislative session.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, the state of Tennessee has allowed the counties that have their own health departments — Shelby, Davidson, Knox, Hamilton, Sullivan and Madison — to create their own guidelines.

That’s something Sexton wants to change.

“Tennessee has safely reopened, and many businesses have regained their economic momentum. That is not the case in our six larger counties like Davidson County, which is the slowest recovering and has one of the highest unemployment rates,” said Sexton. “Traveling across Tennessee, I have heard from many people and businesses in our larger counties who are all frustrated with the lack of communication from these unelected bureaucrats. Their restrictive policies only continue to hamper our statewide recovery efforts and cause further damage to the Tennessee business community.”

“Speaker Sexton believes independent health departments like Shelby County have too much control and autonomy,” Doug Kufner told WREG in an email. “They should serve in advisory roles to our local elected officials, not as the absolute authority.”

Shelby County Health Officer Dr. Bruce Randolph said during the Memphis Shelby County Joint COVID Task Force news conference that as the law stands they have the authority to take action.

“We obey the law. Currently the law gives us the authority that we have instituted and we will continue to do that. If the law changes, then we will act accordingly to what the law says,” Randolph said.

Dr. Alisa Haushalter, director of the Shelby County Health Department, said what departments in urban counties like Shelby, Davidson and Knox and very different from rural counties.

“What’s happened is during the pandemic our authority has become much more visible, and I do understand for many people there’s a questioning of what our authority is and why we have it,” Haushalter said. “But we actually use that authority each and every day outside of the pandemic to address issues in our community.”

The other 89 counties have been under state authority since they have state-run health departments.

On Tuesday, Governor Bill Lee announced COVID-19 resitrictions on businesses and gathering sizes in the 89 counties had been removed. As of Thursday, these restrictions are still in place in Memphis and it’s unclear when they’ll be rescinded.

The State of Emergency in Tennessee will continue through October, as a National State of Emergency remains in place, the governor’s office said.

Looking ahead to next week the Shelby County Health Department is expected to release another directive that could loosen some restrictions, like perhaps allowing more people at sporting events.

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