It’s been more than three months since the city and county mayors declared a state of emergency in response to the coronavirus and we’re still figuring out how to live through this global pandemic.
While the spread of the virus slowed enough in May for local officials to begin reopening businesses, a recent spike in cases and hospitalizations delayed a move into the next reopening phase. On Saturday, the Shelby County Health Department reported the highest one-day increase in COVID-19 cases.
Over the last several weeks, the Memphis Media Collaborative (Chalkbeat Tennessee, High Ground News, the Memphis Flyer and MLK50: Justice Through Journalism) sent a COVID-19 information needs survey by text message to residents across Memphis.
Dozens of you responded, with questions about everything from summer school to bill payment assistance to coworkers who won’t practice social distancing.
Below are answers to some of your questions and links to resources you may need.
Coronavirus protections for customers and employees
As businesses reopen, are there any assurances that workers will wear masks and properly social distance?
Are there county guidelines that mandate this? Yes. Is enforcement robust? No.
The Shelby County Health Department’s latest health directive outlines the specific measures businesses must take to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
For example, employers must make sure customers maintain six feet of distance and that employees who work with the public wear masks that cover the nose and the mouth.
If you notice a business that isn’t following these guidelines, there are three ways to file a complaint: Call the Shelby County Mayor’s Action Line at 901–222–2300; call the Shelby County Health Department’s COVID-19 Hotline at 833–943–1658 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
You can remain anonymous, but the more details you can provide, the better.
I am unsure how my employer is going to follow socially distant guidelines in the workplace. What are my rights if I don’t feel protected as I return to work?
Employers are required by federal law to provide a safe working environment. Under the county health department’s COVID-19 guidelines that includes providing workers with face coverings, performing temperature and health screenings, allowing for social distancing at the workplace and providing places for workers to wash their hands and/or supplying hand sanitizer.
Whether employees can successfully petition bosses to implement and enforce these mandatory precautions or go further than the law requires is a different matter.
If you’re represented by a labor union, such as the Kroger warehouse workers represented by the Teamsters, the union can take workers’ concerns to management, which could protect individual employees from retaliation.
If you’re not represented by a union — and most employees in the Memphis area aren’t — you can file a complaint with the Shelby County Health Department, which investigates workplace safety issues. You can also file a complaint with the Tennessee Occupational Safety and Health Administration, but TOSHA is unlikely to investigate if the complaint does not allege an immediate risk.
The more specific your complaint is, the better. You can remain anonymous, but doing so may limit TOSHA’s ability to follow up. To file a complaint, call the Memphis TOSHA office at 901–543–7259 or submit a complaint online here.
It’s fine to file a report both with the state and the county, which can be reached via the Shelby County Mayor’s Action Line at 901–222–2300, the Shelby County Health Department’s COVID-19 Hotline at 833–943–1658 or by email at email@example.com.
– MLK50: Justice Through Journalism
Children and education
What will happen over the summer? Will there be summer school and in-person camps?
Memphis summer learning will be online and smaller than usual this year.
Memphis students who did not earn passing grades before buildings closed in March because of the coronavirus pandemic will have the opportunity to advance to the next grade, through online summer school that also will provide them laptops and hotspots for internet access. Online classes are scheduled for June 8 through July 16.
This year, the district plans to limit its summer learning academy to reading lessons for kindergarten and first grade students. The district had hoped to expand the academy to all elementary school students and eighth-grade students transitioning to high school, but the county commission declined the district’s request to fund it.
Summer camps’ plans are a bit of a mish-mash. Many camps are open and operating under COVID-19 protocols, with daily temperature checks for campers, no parents past the doors, and in some cases, campers wearing masks. Other camps made the decision not to open this summer. In some cases, camps’ application windows have closed. Memphis Parent offers a Camp Guide here; calling camps individually may be the best way to learn how they are responding and if they are still accepting new campers.
Where can I find free meals for my child this summer?
To ramp up food distribution for children who need it this summer, Shelby County Schools is resuming meal preparation with help from the YMCA of Memphis and the Mid-South.
Shelby County Schools will resume food preparation starting July 1 and YMCA will help the district add new distribution sites and recruit volunteers to meet the heightened demand. You can go here to find the current food distribution site closest to you.
Families can also apply by June 29 for about $5.70 per child per day through the state’s Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer program.
How is Shelby County Schools preparing for the fall and the new school year? What will school look like?
There are still a lot of unknowns, but Shelby County Schools is endeavoring to give every student a laptop or tablet by November, with distribution starting in August.
District officials have said that instruction in the fall could be in-person, online, or a combination of both. More details are expected in early July after a community task force submits recommendations to Superintendent Joris Ray. Classes are scheduled to start Aug. 10 — though even that start date is tentative.
How could social distancing occur in crowded classrooms? Will masks be provided for students and staff?
The short answer is: No one knows yet. The coronavirus has forced school districts across the nation to address a host of pandemic-related needs to ensure the safety of students and teachers when classes resume in the fall while also trying to address the loss of instructional time due to school closures this year.
Shelby County Schools officials gave a first look into some of the options being discussed during a budget presentation in May before county commissioners.
“For safety, we’re thinking about digital thermometers, PPEs or personal protective equipment, handwashing, sanitizing supplies, training,” said Toni Williams, finance director.
She noted that the needs change every day “as we’re learning more and more and becoming educated about how everyone is addressing this pandemic.”
What is the current time frame for reopening businesses in Memphis? What framework are the city and county using?
There is no set-in-stone time frame and the framework to advance is a colored-coded matrix that includes case predictions, capacity of our healthcare systems, and testing capabilities.
The plan is a three-phased approach with a minimum two-week wait before re-evaluating and moving to the next phase. Each category has specific metrics that get a green, yellow, or red rating. Some things can pass on yellow, some only on green. For example, hospital capacity is one category. It’s based on the percentage of ICU beds currently in-use. As long as capacity stays at 95% or lower, the category gets a passing score.
Phase 2 started on May 18. Officials have delayed Phase 3 twice. To move to Phase 3, the metro area must have a flat or negative growth rate in new cases for the previous 14 days. The number of confirmed cases has risen since Phase 2 began. The Shelby County Health Department reported the highest single-day increase on June 20 with 385 new cases.
What volunteer opportunities are available to help front line workers and families or individuals who are remaining isolated?
There are tons! Volunteer Odyssey says the best strategies are to 1) look around your neighborhood and 2) reach out to your favorite organization directly and ask what they need based on your needs.
Virtually every community group, business and nonprofit in the city has big and small needs right now, too. There are monetary needs and needs for in-person volunteering, but there are plenty of opportunities that are low- or no-cost and can be done virtually. Find Volunteer Odyssey’s citywide list of high-priority needs here.
– High Ground News
What doctors and clinics are now accepting patients for non-coronavirus related health issues? Is elective surgery available again?
Generally, checking in with your healthcare provider is the best first step. Hospitals have begun certain elective procedures again, but it depends on the procedure and the particular doctor/clinic. Dentists are to be able to reopen for non-emergency appointments in Phase 3, which has been pushed back.
Are homemade masks or bandanas adequate protection?
Wearing homemade masks can help stem the spread of coronavirus. They offer a barrier to viral droplets being released into the air by people who may be infected but asymptomatic. They do not provide the level of protection of CDC-approved N95 respirator masks but can be crucial in reducing infection levels by protecting family, friends and the community from exposure. The CDC has in-depth information on face coverings and their benefits.
– The Memphis Flyer
Making ends meet
What other bill assistance programs or aid is available for unemployed workers during this time?
This is a hard one. There are a lot of programs or aid funds coming and going and a lot of existing programs are at capacity, but there are some trusted resources. Find MLGW’s residential resources page here. The Shelby County Community Services Agency offers utility, rent, prescription cost assistance to those who qualify. Click here or call 901–222–4200. LINC 2–1–1 has the most comprehensive database of assistance resources in the area. Access LINC here or dial 2–1–1 on any phone.
– High Ground News
I need to figure out how to keep my utility bill paid because I am out of work. What is MLGW’s policy right now? How will I be protected from a mounting bill?
During the pandemic MLGW enacted their pandemic protection plan, temporarily suspending all disconnect notices; disconnects will resume on Aug. 3. Bills have continued to accrue while disconnections are suspended between April 3 and Aug. 3. MLGW says it is unable to offer discounts or suspend billing, but have ensured users that they will work with them during the coronavirus pandemic. For more information check MLGW’s COVID resources page.
A number of community resources are offering utility assistance during this time. The Department of Human Services is providing emergency cash assistance; Shelby County’s Community Services Agency offers a Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program; the State of Tennessee is offering emergency cash assistance to those who have lost jobs due to COVID-19. Metropolitan Inter-Faith Association (MIFA), Society of St. Vincent de Paul (901–722–4703 or 901–274–2137), Millington Crisis Center Ministry (901–872–4357), and United Way of the Mid-South’s COVID-19 Economic Relief Fund (888–709–0630) are providing direct economic relief to those affected by the pandemic. The Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society Emergency Financial Assistance program (901–874–7350) is providing utility and other assistance for active duty and retired military personnel, their widows, and spouses with power of attorney. The Sickle Cell Foundation of Tennessee is offering assistance for sickle cell patients.
– Memphis Flyer
How will I really know if it’s safe to start leaving my house again, especially if I am over 65?
This is a difficult question to answer. Ultimately this decision must be made by each individual (or family). Many health professionals believe that the virus will continue to spread through communities at some level until a vaccine is created, tested, and made available to the public. That might not happen for a year or more.
Shelby County updates its COVID-19 Health Directive frequently (including guidance specifically for individuals), based on the most recent data and input from experts at the Shelby County Health Department. Currently, the guidance is still to stay at home when possible, limit unnecessary activity, practice social distancing, and wear a mask whenever leaving the home.
Older adults continue to be at higher risk. The Centers for Disease Control has some information about specific precautions seniors can take.
Will programs for seniors at city community centers continue in some form? What is available to seniors to aid with physical, social, and mental health right now?
According to the Mayor’s Citizen’s Service Center (311), community and senior centers will begin opening in Phase 3 of the city’s reopening plan. The date for Phase 3 has not been announced yet. There is not any more information at this time about how programs will be phased in. Most senior centers are offering meals and other resources ‘to-go’ in the meantime.
The Aging Commission of the Mid-South provides information about other resources available for seniors;901–222–4111 or 866–836–6678
– High Ground News
These organizations can connect many different people, needs, and services across multiple assistance categories.
LINC 2–1–1: Monday through Friday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Access LINC here or dial 2–1–1 on any phone.
United Way’s Relief Call Center: Open Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. until 5:00 p.m. at 1–888–709–0630. After hours intake form can be found here.
Regional One Health’s One Health Connect: Find it here.
This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit newsroom focused on poverty, power and policy in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by the Surdna Foundation, the Racial Equity in Journalism Fund at Borealis Philanthropy, the Southern Documentary Project at the Center for the Study of Southern Culture, the American Journalism Project, the Community Foundation of Greater Memphis, and Community Change.