By LISA WHALEY
In a three-hour-plus called meeting Tuesday morning, the Jonesborough Board of Mayor and Aldermen voiced tentative support for the Jonesborough Repertory Theatre to move its July USO Show performances to the McKinney Center, while reserving final decision on JRT and other upcoming events for its June 8 scheduled meeting.
“This is probably one of our most important meetings,” Mayor Chuck Vest said as he opened the May 19 town hall meeting to evaluate how the town moves forward on special events amid the current COVID-19 pandemic. The meeting was available via live stream.
“A lot of these things are put on by individuals other than the town,” Vest said. “If they feel uncomfortable putting on the event, we’re not going to force them. If they are looking for guidance, we are here to provide them with guidance.”
Vest added, “We need to deliberate. Can that be done safely?”
Board members addressed suggestions provided by town staff that included possible changes such as delaying opening day for Wetlands Water Park until July, as suggested by Town Parks and Recreation Director Matt Townsend; providing more virtual elements for Jonesborough Days and a virtual garden tour to replace the formerly in-person June Garden Gala. JRT made their McKinney Center-move recommendation because it would allow appropriate distancing for the audience members.
Aldermen too shared their ideas. Terry Countermine expressed support for providing ticketed JRT performances virtually if needed, and Adam Dickson recommended using the back of the old courthouse and parking lot to set up “drive-in theater” style events.
The most important thing, Town Attorney Jim Wheeler stressed, was to make sure the town had appropriate policies in place as it moves forward.
“I think you can do what you want to do, but I would say you need to adopt a policy and you need to follow it. And it needs to be clear enough that it can be followed,” he stressed. He cited as a bad example the current tendency for entities to encourage the wearing of masks, which he called “wishy washy.”
“Encourage is the work that is going to get people in trouble here,” he said. “You either require it, or you don’t require it and you advertise it that way. Same thing as social distancing. You either require it or you don’t.”
Chief Ron Street and Operations Manager Craig Ford also cautioned about the ability for the town to “police” certain guidelines, whether it be face masks or social distancing, especially in an outdoor setting.
As for Jonesborough Days fireworks, Ford reminded the board that with the cancellation of other local July 4th events, the crowds in Jonesborough could be astronomical.
“I think we could have more than what we could physically control,” he said.
A visit via phone call from Dr. David Kirschke, the medical director for the Northeast Tennessee Regional Health Department and the Washington County Health Department, was another note of caution.
“Just looking at the curve for this week, things have been going down but there were quite a few cases reported yesterday, like over 600 in the state,” Dr. Kirschke said. “For Washington County, the numbers are fairly low in terms of active cases.”
But he added, “Locally our numbers are pretty good. As we open up, I don’t see a lot of people adhere to social distancing as we would like them to.”
That, he said, could possibly change the county’s direction.
“I don’t know if that will stay low,” he said. “I think we will have a better idea in the next week or two as to what the trend will be like.”
In the end, the board decided that proceeding cautiously was the appropriate move, agreeing unanimously to postpone final decisions until June 8. In the meantime, town staff will continue working on appropriate policies and agreed to get ready to move ahead.
“We will be able to come back and discuss this more in our June meeting,” Vest said.
“We’re kind of building a path right now.”