by James Coleman —

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues its fourth-quarter rampage, the Shelby County Board of Commissioners this week adopted a pair of resolutions asking Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee to provide relief to a beleaguered food-service industry and to issue a statewide mask mandate to stem the spread of the virus.

“This is a request to Gov. Lee to create or at least research the possibility of a state-funded bailout program for the food service industry. Not just for business owners, but also for employees who are severely impacted,” said Commissioner Tami Sawyer at Monday’s meeting.

“I think putting a Shelby County seal on a request for the state government is important at this time.”

Restaurants have been particularly hard hit during the pandemic. Indoor dining has been cut by mandates and fear. Obtrusive mask-wearing measures haven’t helped whet appetites either. As a result, many establishments are on the brink of ruin. Some already have met their demise.

“As we know the restaurant and food service industry is crippled right now. They are struggling to keep the lights on and they are struggling to pay their employees. This is affecting tens of thousands of homes in our county. People are asking for help in lots of places,” Sawyer said.

An amendment was proposed to change the language of the request from a “bailout” to a less pejorative alternative, to prevent semantics from proving a stumbling block.

“There is some negative connotation in terms of a bailout. I wonder if there would be any interest in renaming that a relief fund or relief program instead? I think this is something we could all get behind. I just wouldn’t want it to have any negative connotation possibly with it…,” said Commissioner Michael Whaley, who was added as a co-sponsor.

The measure drew broad support. Commissioners Edmond Ford Jr., Mickell M. Lowry and Willie F. Brooks also asked to be added as co-sponsors.

However, the comity was short-lived behavior.

“Everyone who signs on as a sponsor, maybe give consideration to hearing from the restaurant association. They may have some tactics and some things that we’re missing,” offered Commissioner Mark Billingsley.

The suggestion ripped the bandages from the still-fresh wounds of the Nov. 23 meeting, where, during public comments, decorum and COVID-19 safety measures were widely disregarded.

Tape markings meant to provide social distance were removed from chairs in the gallery. Some citizens didn’t want to wear masks. Hostile language was used by frustrated business owners and workers.

Sawyer accused members of the Memphis Restaurant Association of walking out during the meeting. She noted an email apology from the organization followed.

So has anonymous online abuse, including alleged racist and misogynistic comments. As a result, others in the industry were consulted on the resolution.

“I stand behind the resolution. It wasn’t just drawn up out of thin air,” said Sawyer. “But I spoke to people who have respect for me and respect for others, and don’t speak to us with the type of language that we heard online and in person the last few weeks.” 

Billingsley and Chairman Eddie S. Jones Jr. excused the walkout. There was an overflow crowd waiting to speak. Those, who had finished, were asked to leave by security personnel.

Billingsley also said there had been “no ill will” from members of the group.

“I just want to be clear that I don’t just pull this (expletive) out of my hat. I want to be very clear about that. Excuse my language,” said Sawyer. “I apologize, but I am extremely tired of when there is a public record of people saying things to me that they were not saying to 12 other people. I am extremely tired that I then have to come back … that you will defend someone else before you will stand up for your colleague.”

After issuing a warning about foul language, Jones said he asked for people to be removed when he saw health mandates were being violated. He had earlier noted the volatility of the prior meeting.

“What I will not do is put employees in this building in jeopardy when you come into these chambers. We will adhere to the rule of law that we expect every single citizen to do,” said Jones.

He then asked to be made a co-sponsor. The resolution passed 12-0.

The commission then quickly voted 7-3, with one abstention, to adopt the suggested state-wide mask resolution to the governor. It was sponsored by Sawyer; Whaley, Brooks, Jones and Ford co-sponsored the gesture.

“This resolution joins the Memphis City Council, which passed very similar language last week,” said Sawyer.

During its Dec. 1 meeting, the City Council voted unanimously to send a similar request to the governor.

The vote was notable for drawing converts to mask-wearing guidance. During the summer,  a thumbs down was given to a proposed mask mandate.