Close the Bars! Open the Schools! 

click to enlarge The Bobcat - JUSTIN FOX BURKS
  • Justin Fox Burks
  • The Bobcat
Here in Shelby County, we've gone back and forth in deciding whether to open bars, restaurants, gyms, tattoo parlors, and such in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Last week, after being allowed to reopen as Phase 2 was implemented in May, many local bars — those that make less than 50 percent of their revenues from food — were forced to close again by the county health department. Those restaurants that were allowed to remain open are now required to get patrons' names and addresses before they are seated, in case contact-tracing has to be done at some point. Not exactly an appetizing thought to begin your dinner. But these aren't exactly appetizing times.

The bars have sued for the right to remain open, claiming, rightfully, in my opinion, that you can get just as drunk and careless drinking in a restaurant as you can in a bar that makes only, say, 40 percent of its revenue from food. The lawsuit also points out the incongruity of allowing Beale Street bars to remain open, and cites the closure as a violation of the First and 14th Amendments. They appear to have a point. So, we'll see where that goes.

Sadly, it's not inconceivable that all this drama could become moot if the infection rates continue to rise to unprecedented levels. Phase 1 could be revisited, and if that happens, no restaurant or bar will be allowed to offer sit-down service. Let's hope it doesn't. No one wants to go backward. Wear a damn mask.

The next real battleground, here and nationally, is over whether or not schools should reopen this fall. The Trump administration is pushing hard for colleges and universities, private and charter schools, and all public schools to fully reopen on time. They are threatening to withhold federal funding from colleges that don't open their campuses to classroom learning. It's heavy-handed, top-down governance, in keeping with the White House's “economy uber alles” philosophy. Public health is an afterthought. No surprise there.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, Shelby County schools are offering parents the option of sending their children back to classrooms, where social distancing and masks and temperature checks will be required, or taking online courses at home. I'm glad I'm not a parent of school-age children these days. It's got to be a tough decision. And it has to be made by Saturday, July 18th.

Unfortunately, if you're a parent who's deemed an “essential worker,” you don't really have much of a choice. You could, I suppose, decide to quit your job, forego an income, and stay home to help your children learn. But more likely you'll send them off to school, so you can continue to pay the rent and buy food.

That being the case, there will certainly be thousands of Memphis and Shelby County children in our public school buildings, beginning in August. Along with teachers, cafeteria workers, maintenance workers, school bus drivers, and office and administrative personnel. That's a lot of folks to keep healthy. Sending your child to school would appear to be a riskier option, health-wise, than keeping them home.

And that's the question, isn't it? How can schools possibly remain COVID-free and open with any consistency, given the scope of the virus’ reach these days? Some teacher friends of mine have been circulating the following document on social media:

• If a teacher tests positive for COVID-19 are they required to quarantine for 2-3 weeks? Is their sick leave covered, paid?
• If that teacher has 5 classes a day with 30 students each, do all 150 of those students need to then stay home and quarantine for 14 days?
• Do all 150 of those students now have to get tested? Who pays for those tests? Are they happening at school? How are the parents being notified? Does everyone in each of those kids' families need to get tested? Who pays for that?
• What if someone who lives in the same house as a teacher tests positive? Does that teacher now need to take 14 days off of work to quarantine? Is that time off covered? Paid?
• Where is the district going to find a substitute teacher who will work in a classroom full of exposed, possibly infected students for substitute pay?
• Substitutes teach in multiple schools. What if they are diagnosed with COVID-19? Do all the kids in each school now have to quarantine and get tested? Who is going to pay for that?
• What if a student in your kid's class tests positive? What if your kid tests positive? Does every other student and teacher they have been around quarantine? Do we all get notified who is infected and when? Or because of HIPAA regulations are parents and teachers just going to get mysterious “may have been in contact” emails all year long?
• What is this stress going to do to our teachers? How does it affect their health and well-being? How does it affect their ability to teach? How does it affect the quality of education they are able to provide? What is it going to do to our kids? What are the long-term effects of consistently being stressed out?
• How will it affect students and faculty when the first teacher in their school dies from this? The first parent of a student who brought it home? The first kid?
• How many more people are going to die, that otherwise would not have if we had stayed home longer? 30% of the teachers in the US are over 50. About 16% of the total deaths in the US are people between the ages of 45-65. We are choosing to put our teachers in danger.

Granted, some hyperbole exists in that document, but does anyone really believe buildings with hundreds of people in them every day won't be getting cases of COVID on a weekly basis? The ensuing shutdowns and testings and reopenings and quarantines sound like a nightmare for all concerned.

Not to mention, Monday's infection number for Shelby County was a stunning 700-plus cases. If schools had to be closed in March, due to infection rates that were much lower than that, why are we opening them up this fall? We're creating Petri dishes for COVID with our children and teachers.

We need to rethink this. And quickly. It's a pandemic, and we're closing bars and opening schools? On what planet is that a good idea?

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