November 23, 2020
Via Hand Delivery
Dr. Alisa Haushalter, DNP, RN, PHNA-BC
Director, Shelby County Health Department
814 Jefferson Avenue
Memphis, Tennessee 38105
Re: Memphis Restaurant Association, Inc.
Dear Dr. Haushalter:
I have the pleasure of serving as the Incoming President of the Memphis Restaurant Association (MRA) and will be following the tenure of my colleague Ernie Mellor, whom I understand you have communicated with in the past. As you may already know, the MRA represents its member restaurant operators and supporting businesses of the restaurant industry, which include approximately one hundred sixty-nine (169) restaurants and ninety-four (94) businesses that serve and support the restaurant industry. Please find enclosed a list of names and businesses signing on to this letter representing those that support the pleas included in this letter. Many more will likely join in support after this letter is delivered. We will present these additional signers when we meet next week.
First and foremost, we would like to extend our thanks for your and your department’s diligent efforts in these most unprecedented times to protect the health and safety of all members of our community. Thank you.
The MRA and its members have been and will continue to advocate for the health and safety of our families, staff, and community. We have abided by the letter and intent of all health directives, many of us having gone above and beyond minimum requirements. We have suffered and survived through shutdowns, fear, and intermittent voids of information, often being left to fend for ourselves in our attempts to decipher directives, comply with mandates, and do all that was necessary to care of our employees and our customers.
I write today to ensure that the public discourse and the Health Department’s directives during this pandemic are based in fact and data. We implore you to please help us improve communication, clarity, and understanding and to address our concerns and questions specifically regarding Health Directive 15 and Face Mask Order No. 3 and any future directives which may be forthcoming. Our goal is to strengthen the partnership between our industry, our elected officials, and the Health Department.
Specifically, the MRA’s concerns include the following areas:
Communication: We need an open line of communication to address issues related to these directives and related issues as they arise. In light of the attention focused by the Health Department on our industry, a single, designated point of contact within the Health Department with authority to answer our questions or, at least, obtain and provide answers for us in a clear, consistent, and prompt manner would be appropriate.
Data: We need to understand what metrics are being used to make decisions related to our industry and be allowed access to that data so we can better understand and prepare for what may be coming. Understanding the data upon which you base your crucial decisions allows us, as business owners, the opportunity to support your policies through our interactions with our employees and with the public. Access to the underlying data and an understanding of your application of the data in your decision-making processes will also allow us the opportunity to plan strategically four our businesses and make the difficult decisions, both in the short-term and long-term, with a verifiable basis for those decisions, rather than mere conjecture or speculation. Frankly, we all have heard that these are data-driven decisions being made, it is time for us to see and understand the underlying data.
Timing: Given the “Trip Wires” plan that was issued in August 2020 as the road map to decision making with respect to opening and closing businesses, why are we not given notice and time to plan versus being forced to merely react to the directives? If there is an obvious trend to cross a trip wire, there should be an equally obvious next step that needs to be conveyed to us so that we can communicate to our customers, staff and vendors that change(s) may be coming.
To that end, we respectfully submit that directives posted on a Friday evening with no opportunity to plan or clarify before the implementation the following Monday morning is inexcusable. We need to build a partnership in order for our industry and community to support our leadership, but it is difficult to do so when these tactics are employed to our detriment.
Messaging: We need to generate a positive message to the public; not one that promotes fear. The spread of this virus is not solely due to dining out by any stretch, and we are working hard and at great expense to do our part. The restaurant industry should not be vilified or scapegoated in the process.
Enforcement: First, we need help. We need the Health Department to enforce the directives it is issuing. Asking businesses and their employees to confront people who have chosen to patronize their establishments regarding the customers’ personal behavior is an untenable position. Restaurants have often been left unsure of the specifics of regulations and are, regrettably, being forced to choose where to draw the line between serving our guests and interpreting how far regulations are intended to go.
We ask that you recognize that the vast majority of restaurants are compliant, many going well beyond the standards set. We are a vital part of the Shelby County community and economy and don’t deserve to be lumped together with a few bad actors. Blatant offenders have been reported to the Shelby County Mayor’s Action Center, and by all anecdotal evidence, these reports appear to have been ignored. We understand that you know the identity of the non-compliant restaurants, so why not focus your resources to bring them into compliance without a blanket policy that punishes everyone?
As part of an improved dialogue, the MRA would like to address the following questions with you. We are standing by to address these items in any forum you may deem most appropriate.
a. Are decisions being made solely on a data-driven basis? If so, what metrics are being used. If there are other factors, what are they?
b. What data indicates that restaurants are the “high-risk settings” that we have been designated?
c. Does this data directly link individual restaurants to COVID cases? If so, have those particular businesses been so notified?
d. How many COVID cases has the Health Department directly attributed to exposure in a restaurant via contact tracing or other means of reporting?
e. We have been told by Tennessee Alcoholic Beverage Commission (TABC) agents that TABC is now involved as additional enforcement and inspection. Is this accurate? If so, how are the efforts of the TABC and the SCHD being directed and by whom?
f. Masks between bites. Is this literal or are guests allowed to leave them off while they have food and drink in front of them? CDC directs us to sanitize when removing masks, and to minimize contact with masks. How are out customers to follow CDC guidelines while masking between bites and sips?
g. With respect to the “household” requirement, is this really saying that co-workers, people on a date, families that live in separate homes, etc. are not allowed to dine together? If so, how would we even begin to enforce this?
We respectfully write to you, not just on behalf of restaurant owners, but on behalf of our staff, our vendor partners and our customers, all of which are stakeholders in the decisions you make. Yes, there are massive economic implications to businesses and tax revenues, but these are the livelihoods of thousands of Memphians. We WANT to be part of the solution. We ask that you help us understand by including us in your considerations and sharing data that helps us help you.
Accordingly, MRA respectfully requests that the “Limited Restrictions for High-Risk Settings” provisions of Health Directive 15 and Section 2(g) of Face Mask Directive 3 be reconsidered and/or that enforcement thereof be stayed pending further review. We further request that no future changes to the requirements in health directives which would affect the restaurant industry be made without prior consultation with the MRA. Our members desire to cooperate, and I am confident that, working together, we can continue to operate restaurants safely and in an economically viable manner.
I can assure you that as our knowledge of the virus develops and the restaurant industry continues to develop best practices for operation in this environment, MRA and its members remain steadfastly committed to immediately modifying their procedures and protocols to remain on the cutting edge of safe operation for their workers and customers. To that end, MRA welcomes further discussion with the Shelby County Health Department or third-party experts to consider potential steps that MRA members could implement which would meet and exceed the public health needs while not further endangering the viability of so many of our business and the livelihoods of our team members.
Thank you for your time and attention to this matter. Your prompt attention to this would be greatly appreciated. I look forward to hearing from you.
Memphis Restaurant Association, Inc.
cc: Jennifer Sink (via email)
Marlinee Clark Iverson (via email)
Brian Yoakum (via email)
Counsel to Memphis Restaurant Association, Inc.