March 20, 2020 10:00am

Power Poll: Coronavirus Response

Local officials get a low score for preparation but higher marks for steps taken to mitigate the threat posed by the pandemic.

Photo of Scott Barker
Knoxville, TN Correspondent

During a week that saw the mayor of Knoxville declare a state of emergency, the school system suspend instruction and West Town Mall shut its doors at least temporarily, Knoxville Power Poll respondents gave local officials generally high marks for their response to the novel coronavirus.

The grades for execution in this month’s poll are at odds with the amount of confidence respondents reported having that local officials were prepared for the pandemic.

The number of people testing positive for the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 soared statewide from 26 on Friday, March 13, to 154 as of yesterday. 

Knox County’s only new case for the week isn’t really a Knox County case at all — the person tested positive in another state and has a Knox County address but has been living in another country during the time the novel coronavirus seized a foothold in the United States. Officially, Knox County still has only one case of a patient with a positive test result inside its borders.

Still, officials have been scrambling to “flatten the curve,” a reference to a graph showing how slowing the advance of the virus can keep the healthcare system from being overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients.

Following guidance from the Knox County Health Department and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, city and county officials have urged people to practice distancing, limit the size of gatherings and use good hygiene. 


Poll Numbers

This month’s Power Poll, an unscientific survey of 318 community leaders in business, government, education and other fields, focused on the local response to the coronavirus. Ninety-seven, or 30.5 percent, of those polled between Monday and Thursday responded.

A plurality of respondents, 45 percent, said they were not confident that city and county leaders were prepared to handle the pandemic. Twenty-five percent expressed confidence that officials were ready, while one in four said they were unsure.

A majority — 55.6 percent — said local leaders have been providing enough information about developments in Knox County. The Knox County Health Department has been holding biweekly briefings and other press conferences as needed. 

On Thursday, the Health Department, along with the city and county mayor’s offices and other agencies, opened a joint information center to provide a central point of contact for the media seeking to inform the public about developments. 

Leaders got a resounding 63.9 percent approval rating for their reaction to the crisis. Only 4 percent said they thought efforts amounted to an overreaction, while 18.6 percent thought measures taken so far constitute an underreaction.

In a week that saw shoppers strip store shelves of toilet paper and canned goods while many diners opted to stay away from restaurants, the general public got mixed reviews. Thirty percent said Knox Countians overreacted, 26 percent said they underreacted and 32 percent said the reaction was appropriate.


Fluid Situation

The poll was sent out on Monday, prior to Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon’s announcement that she had declared a state of emergency that gives her broad authority to take action inside the City of Knoxville, including the ability to spend public funds without City Council approval.

The poll came out before the city and the county closed senior centers. The city also shut down youth league sports and limited the use of recreation centers this week.

The poll also came out before Knox County Schools announced schools would close through April 3 and before the school system announced it would provide free meals to all children under the age of 18 during the hiatus. 

The situation is so fluid that there is no way at this point to measure whether any of the developments of the past week would have changed how poll recipients responded. And the weeks to come could bring changes that would alter perceptions as well.

Dr. Martha Buchanan, director of the Knox County Health Department, said Thursday that officials are in talks about establishing a remote assessment and testing center where residents could provide samples for testing. “Right now, the concept would be a drive-through kind of space,” she said.

Meanwhile, more businesses and venues are shutting down temporarily. Historic Blount Mansion announced it would be closed at least through April 3. The Emporium is closed and won’t stage exhibitions previously scheduled to begin April 3, which is First Friday downtown.

The Downtown Grill & Brewery, which was an early catalyst for downtown’s renaissance, will be closed for two weeks. A newer downtown favorite, Yassin’s Falafel House, is like many restaurants closing its dining room and will be taking orders online only for carryout or delivery.

Buchanan reiterated yesterday that more cases — and more changes — are on the way. Her staff met with childcare providers on Wednesday and recommended they limit the number of children in their care, practice social distancing and adjust activities — including the elimination of field trips — to keep the chances of transmission down.

“I do feel like we’re prepared,” Buchanan said.

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About Power Poll: Power Poll asks questions of the most powerful, influential people in U.S. cities. It is not a scientific survey. But because the people responding to the surveys comprise the leadership structure of their cities, the results afford a fascinating glimpse into the thoughts, opinions, and beliefs of those in a position to make change. Power Poll is distinctly nonpartisan.

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