By Associated Press - Friday, April 2, 2021

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - A Tennessee county voted this week to strip the local Board of Health of the power to enact pandemic safety rules after complaints that its indoor mask mandate and bar curfew have hurt businesses and restricted personal freedoms, the Knoxville News Sentinel reported.

The 8-3 vote by the Knox County Commission on Monday came after months of public feuding. It effectively dissolved the health board and reconstituted it with the same members an advisory board. That leaves the county with two health advisory boards, since it created another one last year. It’s unclear what the role of the newly constituted board will be.

New ordinances take effect 15 days after their passage. County Law Director David Buuck said that after that, not only will the board be dissolved but its pandemic safety orders “will be of no force or legal effect.”

Knox County Health Department Director Dr. Martha Buchanan will then have the sole authority to enact pandemic safety precautions. She could let the rules lapse, but she could also create new ones, even ones that are more restrictive than the current rules. Buchanan can only be removed by the state health commissioner and county mayor acting together, according to state law.

Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs, a voting member of the health board, and several county commissioners have been vocal in their opposition to pandemic safety measures because of restrictions on businesses, although Jacobs has said he doesn’t plan to fire Buchanan.

Ahead of the vote Monday, Board of Health member Dr. Patrick O’Brien wrote commissioners saying he would resign if they if they went through with it, and focus his time and energy elsewhere.

The only person to speak ahead of the vote was Commission Chairman Larsen Jay, who compared the pandemic to a forest fire, urging his fellow commissioners to “never leave a hot fire unattended and simply walk away.”

Knox County’s vote came after a bill by state Rep. Jason Zachary, R-Knoxville, to limit the authority of the state’s six independent boards of health passed the House in a 67-26 vote.

As of Thursday, 619 Knox County residents had died from COVID-19. The state death toll was 11,915.

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