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Washington County mayor not considering new mask mandate as cases rise

Washington County Mayor Joe Grandy is not considering a new mask order “at this time” during a rise of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, though he said the option is still on the table.

“I’ve always left that option open,” Grandy said in an interview with the Press earlier this week. “It’s something we’ll watch — I think this spike was predicted, and for me I’m just going to watch the severity of it and hospitalizations are always a key.”

Asked if there was a certain threshold for new cases or hospitalizations at which he would consider issuing a new masking order, Grandy said it’s more about trends than day-to-day numbers, noting that high new case counts will lead to a corresponding increase in hospitalizations.

“I’m looking more at trends than at hard numbers,” Grandy said. “Our hospitalizations reached a peak in December of 368, so we understand capacity, it’s just more about the trends. Naturally, hospitalizations will follow a high level of positive cases, so we’re just going to watch it and try to make the best decision we can for everybody.”

Washington County, which first issued its mask mandate in July, has been without one since Feb. 20, when Grandy allowed it to expire amid a lull in new infection rates. Over the past several weeks, however, new cases and hospitalizations have risen, prompting some local health officials to warn against another potential surge in novel coronavirus (COVID-19) cases.

“I do think that we’re at that point that I’ve talked about for several weeks now, that critical juncture of — we’ve plateaued, we’ve certainly plateaued in our decline, and, at this point, we very well could see our numbers start increasing,” Ballad Health Chief Infection Prevention Officer Jamie Swift told the Press last month. “And it kind of looks like we might be on the edge of our numbers going back up.”

Compared to February, Washington County’s average new case count rose by more than 30% in March (23.2), though it was still well below January’s average of 71.1. Over the past 14 days, the county has reported an average of 31 new cases per day, a more than 75% increase from February. Regionally, new cases were down about 4% in March, though testing was down 20.9% — indicating the decline in cases is likely due to the decline in testing rather than a general decline in infections.

Cases are also on the rise nationally, with U.S. President Joe Biden calling on states that allowed their mask mandates to expire to reinstate them and wait to reopen businesses. Tennessee, which has never had a statewide mask mandate, has left the decision to county mayors. Back in July, Northeast Tennessee became the first region in the state to have 100% of its population under some form of mask order.

East Tennessee State University’s Quillen College of Medicine Dean Dr. Bill Block said a statewide mandate “would have been the ideal approach to go with.”

“I think passing it off to the counties was an error, and it resulted in the county mayors being stuck having to make the decision and having some counties participate and others not, which decreases the effectiveness of having anyone mandate them,” Block said. “That’s been disappointing. There certainly could have been lives saved by a more stringent mask mandate across the country, and I don’t think anybody can debate that.

“I think everyone wants to get businesses open, keep things moving along, and really the best way to do that, short of vaccination, is masks,” Block said.

Grandy said he has concerns any time there’s a rise in cases, but that he’s unsure the impact a new mask mandate would have at this point, saying “everybody has been under a mask mandate at one point or another and, I think, understands clearly the effectiveness of them. At some point it becomes a matter of personal interest and personal responsibility to do the right thing.”

“I have concerns until this is just completely gone. There’s no question that when we see increases in cases it’s not a good sign,” Grandy said. “Again, I think this particular surge was predicted and, you know, it’s a behavioral thing. Would a mask mandate in Washington County have made a difference for people on spring break in Miami (Florida)? Probably not.

Block said he believes “masks are really the best tool we have on a low-tech front.”

“I do think guidance from elected officials is of value,” he said, “and (Sullivan County) Mayor (Richard) Venable has taken that choice, so we see conflict even amongst our two neighboring counties.”

Grandy, who has been vaccinated, urged people to seek the shot and continue following public health guidance.

“If there’s any piece of advice: Get vaccinated, that’s your best protection, and continue to do the things that we know prevent spreading the germs whether it’s common cold germs or COVID germs,” Grandy said. “Don’t touch a bunch of stuff, don’t grab people, give folks space, wash your hands — it’s really not rocket science when you think about it.”

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$50,000 grant provided to Downtown Johnson City

Connect Downtown Johnson City, a Tennessee Main Street organization, is seeking applicants to open a retail marketplace in the downtown district.

The organization received a Placemaking Grant from the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development in 2020. Funds in the grant are designed to support a business owner to lease a large first-floor space that will be filled with artists, makers and retailers.

To be eligible for the grant, business owners must complete the upcoming CO.STARTERS workshop series.

An additional opportunity provided under the Placemaking Grant is for funding to support local entrepreneurs to open a short-term pop up shop in the district.

“Through our DowntownNOW marketing, we have been able to showcase some available properties downtown and share the stories of several successful business owners in our district,” said Johnson City Development Authority Executive Director Dianna Cantler. “Now, the next step is to encourage and provide training for those who have a desire to build their own business. This Placemaking Grant will help us complete our goal to fill a large vacant space in downtown, as well as support local micro-entrepreneurs.”

“I would recommend opening a business in downtown Johnson City 100 percent,” said Hannah Dederick, the owner of Blue Willow Bridal. “There is a community in downtown where everyone supports each other. I would not have made it this far or done this well, if not for the support of the other business downtown.”

The DowntownNOW retail incubator and DowntownPOP programs have a timeline, with the goal to begin opening at least one location by July. Connect Downtown Johnson City will work alongside the chosen entrepreneurs to ensure a successful business launch.

“The goal for any business that opens should be to succeed, and with the proper planning, it can be possible,” said Economic Vitality chairman David Nelson.

“We have discovered that even someone with a great business idea needs support and guidance. The CO.STARTERS program has helped us encourage business growth in the service industry, retail and media start ups. We want businesses to succeed by making sure they begin with a strong foundation in entrepreneurship and to connect them with other entrepreneurs to help them build a support network for the future.”

For more details about the DowntownNOW grant and how to apply for CO.STARTERS go to downtownjc.com/downtownNOW. The next CO.STARTERS cohort begins April 13.

Connect Downtown Johnson City is a 501 ( c) 3 organization with the mission to foster a thriving downtown ecosystem that is desirable for residents, businesses, and visitors by forging partnership and facilitating community connections. The organization is an accredited program of National Main Street.

CO.STARTERS for aspiring entrepreneurs begins April 13

Connect Downtown Johnson City, the Chamber of Commerce of Johnson City/Jonesborough and Sync Space are partnering to offer a program intended to help get new businesses off the ground.

CO.STARTERS is a nine-week cohort-based program that is designed to equip aspiring entrepreneurs with the insights, relationships, and tools needed to turn ideas into action. The program is for aspiring or seasoned entrepreneurs looking to launch a new product or service.

Participants in the CO.STARTERS program work with a small group of like-minded people who are all trying to start their own businesses. Working together, participants identify their assumptions about why and how their respective businesses will succeed and talk with customers to validate their ideas. The process helps entrepreneurs rapidly uncover issues in their proposed businesses, find practical solutions quickly and finish with a deeper understanding of how to launch a successful business.

The next session begins April 13. Registration is $125 per person and includes a CO.STARTERS workbook. Registration deadline is Thursday, April 8. Registration is limited to 12 people.

Participants will also have the opportunity to pitch to receive several benefit packages, including cash prizes and a one-year membership to the Chamber of Commerce.

Connect Downtown Johnson City, through a grant from Tennessee Main Street, will be looking for a business owner to open a retail incubator in downtown. If a participant is selected for this grant, they would be eligible for up to $30,000 in funding towards a marketplace business. There are also grants available for pop up shop options at a lesser amount.

“The Johnson City Development Authority and now Connect Downtown Johnson City, our Main Street accredited program, have been hosting CO.STARTERS since 2016,” said Executive Director Dianna Cantler. “We have been able to assist entrepreneurs develop and discern their ideas, some have opened businesses, and some have realized through the program, that their idea needed to be more developed. That is one of the benefits to CO.STARTERS, it makes you take a look at the idea to make sure it is a good investment of time and money.”

For more information or to register for the program, go to downtownjc.com/co-starters

ETSU president addresses Shay controversy in email to students

In an email to students Friday, East Tennessee State University President Brian Noland addressed the controversy surrounding the resignation of men’s basketball Coach Jason Shay, writing that “healing is going to take time, but I am committed to improving and continuing to support our student athletes as well as all of our students, faculty and staff.”

The email comes after days of outrage over Shay’s sudden resignation, which many believed to be a result of his support for his team kneeling during the national anthem to call attention to racial injustice.

“Over the course of the past few weeks, significant internal and external focus has been placed upon the campus of East Tennessee State University,” Noland wrote. “The diversity and intensity of this scrutiny is palpable, as are the associated feelings of pain, hurt, and anger.

“Universities are curators of the truth and we have a responsibility to serve as common ground for debate, dialogue, discovery, and understanding, all of which occur with a purposeful sense of civil discourse,” he continued. “I have spoken with many across our campus who are disheartened by these recent events and feel like ETSU is not a place where they belong. I am pained that our community is hurting and I want to reassure each of you that ETSU is committed to being an inclusive institution where all are welcome to explore ideas and opportunities for growth and expression.”

The team’s decision to kneel ahead of several games this season kicked off a firestorm in the days and weeks after it was publicized, with Tennessee’s Republican state senators, as well as Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, signing a letter calling on public universities in the state to ban the form of protest in February.

“When they don the jersey of a Tennessee university, they step out of their personal roles and into the role of an ambassador for our state,” read the letter. “We expect all those who walk onto the field of play representing our universities to also walk onto the field of play to show respect for our national anthem.”

In response to the backlash the team was facing, a large group of students and community members marched in support of the team across ETSU’s campus in late February.

Noland went on to say he’s heard from many in the African American community that feel “at a minimum, ignored, mistreated and disrespected,” as well as from service members and their families who feel “disrespected and that their sacrifices are unappreciated.”

“It is incumbent upon all of us as members of the campus community to recognize and respect these feelings,” Noland wrote.

“We must also acknowledge, unequivocally, that racial injustices and systemic racism exist. This includes the fact that some individuals, myself among them, have benefited from certain privileges based on race,” Noland continued. “Research, statistics, and the lived experiences of our fellow Bucs demonstrate this heart-wrenching reality. As you have heard me say many times, the mission of East Tennessee State University is to improve the quality of life in our communities.

“We cannot fulfill that mission if we ignore the injustices that people of color and other underrepresented groups face.”

Noland also highlighted several initiatives undertaken by ETSU in the past 18 months including expanded resources and programming for the Mary V. Jordan Multicultural Center, the Women’s Resource Center and the Black Faculty and Staff Association, and establishing “several new scholarship programs to provide equitable access to higher education for underrepresented students.”

In addition, Noland called attention to the Committee for 125’s diversity and inclusion task force, which is chaired by Dr. Janna Scarborough, with its composition to be announced next week. The goal of the task force is to develop a “long-term and comprehensive equity and inclusion action plan at ETSU.”

“These initiatives are significant, but they are not enough,” Noland said.