With safety protocols in place, Uncle Lou's Restaurant welcomed customers taking advantage of Black Restaurant Week. (Photo: Gary S. Whitlow/GSW Enterprises/TSD Archives)

With the number of COVID-19 cases falling, the Shelby County Health Department, as anticipated, issued a new directive, relaxing safety guidelines lines for restaurants and easing mask wearing requirements.

Directive 19, announced Wednesday (March 17), does not totally end virus safety mandates for businesses and masking, as has happened in Texas and Mississippi.

The local directive is effective beginning at 12:01 a.m. Saturday (March 20.)

Shelby County Health Department Medical Officer Dr. Bruce Randolph, regarding bars and restaurants, said the new directive:

  • Increases the number of people at tables from six to eight.
  • Still requires people seated together be of the same family unit or close contact group.
  • Encourages bartenders to wear a face shield or double mask while serving multiple groups at the bar, but are not required to do so.
  • Lets operating hours for dine-in service end at 1 a.m. (Customers may stay until 1:30 to complete meal/payment arrangements).
  • Removes two-hour limit for food service.
  • Requires any location that serves beer or alcohol to also serve food as required by state law (and have a permit to do so).
  • Removes the requirement of maintaining contact tracing records.

Regarding masks, Randolph said, “People who are not able to medically tolerate a face mask are exempt from wearing one. They will not be required to show medical documentation.”

Everyone else still will be asked to take personal responsibility for wearing masks while out in public – in gyms, salons and other establishments.

Additionally, the new masking directive recommends medical or procedure grade masks for the most effective protection. Coverings that are made of “suitable layered fabrics” are acceptable. However, scarves, ski masks and balaclavas (extension of clothing that can be pulled up from the collar to cover the nose and mouth), according to the masking directive, are not suitable substitutes for masks.

The new mandates reflect the decreasing number of new virus infections and, perhaps, an increasing number of people receiving first and second doses of COVID-19 vaccines.

As of Wednesday afternoon, officials reported the county had administered 226,456 doses of COVID-19 vaccines – 158,658 were first doses and 67,798 were second doses.

And, the county reported 97 new cases Wednesday and no new virus-related deaths. There have been 1,539 COVID-related deaths, for a local mortality rate of 1.7 percent, since the virus took hold here in February of 2020. 

The city closed vaccination sites Wednesday because of inclement weather. Officials said, however, everyone who had vaccine appointment Wednesday will be given the first priority in rescheduling. 

To schedule, or to re-schedule an appointment, visit: covid19.memphistn.gov.

Local residents without Internet access, or those who may need additional assistance in scheduling online, can call 901-222-7468 (SHOT), between 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m.