Call to Action: Demands for Knoxville/Knox County Government Responses to COVID-19

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The spread of COVID-19 is a tremendous threat both to our health and to our social and economic livelihoods. Local government in Knoxville and Knox County needs to take a leadership role not just in managing public health across various populations, but in mitigating the economic impact on working people and pandemic spread in our most vulnerable communities. This is especially vital given the entirely inadequate federal response from the Trump administration, which seems more focused on the stock market and the November election than in saving lives or providing even a minimal safety net for those impacted by this pandemic and crisis. 

This petition, sponsored by the City Council Movement, Knoxville's Black Mamas Bail OutFace to Face (F2F) Knox, Community Defense of East Tennessee, the First Aid Collective Knoxville, Knoxville Radical Library, Mountain Access Brigade, and the Knoxville Feminist Action Brigade, calls on Knox County and Knoxville City government to recognize their power and purpose as agencies for the People and provide the most comprehensive protections, resource sharing strategies, and creative approaches to proactively take steps to help our community get through this safely and with our economic livelihoods intact.

Local government must take every action within its power, and work to encourage private actors and state government to do what it cannot, in order to, minimally:

EXTEND BENEFITS AND GUARANTEE CONTINUED EMPLOYMENT

Paid sick leave must be immediately extended to all City and County employees. This includes emergency paid leave above and beyond normal accumulated leave time. Workers without paid leave face the impossible choice of coming to work sick and spreading the virus, or staying at home without pay and sacrificing their ability to make ends meet. We can protect the safety of the public AND the wellbeing of our workers by ensuring universal paid sick leave for the duration of the crisis.

Government institutions not immediately essential to public well-being should close, especially those where many people come in contact with each other and risk spreading the virus. 

Employees of institutions that close must be guaranteed full pay for the duration of closure. For workplaces that don’t close, any employees who can work from home should be encouraged to do so, with full pay. All employees must be guaranteed continued employment following closures or leave; no terminations and no layoffs.

The City and County should encourage and incentivize private businesses to follow all of these same policies and ensure that all residents of Knoxville and Knox County have access to any federal and state aid available for wages lost and the economic hardships already felt by the pandemic. SNAP and WIC benefits must also be immediately extended to ensure our communities have food on the table. We need our local government to make a commitment to seek such aid and pressure our state and federal institutions to distribute these resources to our communities.

PROVIDE AMNESTY FOR VULNERABLE POPULATIONS 

We must guarantee that there will be no enforcement of immigration policy or other types of warrants at healthcare facilities and other sites providing essential services, as well as for those in self-isolation and self-quarantine. It is not only inhumane to force any person to choose between not receiving treatment for a potentially fatal illness or facing arrest or deportation; it is also a major risk to public health if people avoid treatment or quarantine because of these fears. 

Local law enforcement are not legally required to aid federal immigration enforcement and should be instructed not to do so in any situation, including during routine traffic stops or arrests unrelated to immigration status; staff at government buildings and healthcare facilities should be similarly instructed.

PROVIDE SAFETY AND JUSTICE IN THE CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM

Pandemic conditions call for immediate reform and action regarding the safety and health of accused and incarcerated individuals, people on parole and probation, and the professionals working in the criminal justice system. While the Sheriff’s office has released a statement ensuring that there are “protocols” in place for cleanliness and sanitation in our local jail and holding areas, everyday punitive structures within the system automatically increase the potential for exposure of all individuals working and subject to the criminal justice system. We stand in solidarity with all demands set forth by Community Defense of East Tennessee and encourage folks to sign their petition and get involved during and after this pandemic.

The recent suspension of Knox County civil and criminal courts (with the exception of constitutionally mandated proceedings) will put populations at risk who are awaiting trial and potentially increase the risk of vulnerable populations already imprisoned. We must address these conditions by ending cash bail and pre-trial detention for all community members newly accused of a crime, suspending parole and probation revocation for technical violations, and releasing eldery, medically fragile, juvenile, pregnant, and chronically ill inmates. We also call on the Sheriff to provide free calls/internet access for all currently incarcerated individuals to communicate with loved ones and the suspension of any financial barriers present to accessing medical care while incarcerated. Incarcerated populations must have access to free preventative measures and sanitation products, free medical testing, and free treatment while under the care of the County. 

Formerly incarcerated individuals still subject to probation and parole meetings should have options for checking in over the phone or via internet technologies or have their meetings suspended altogether. Traveling and waiting hours for brief check-in meetings with parole and probation officers will only increase risk of infection of all parties in the parole and probation process. There must also be consideration of discharging individuals from parole and probation rolls considered low-risk and are deemed to longer need supervision.  

ENSURE NO EVICTIONS OR SHUT OFFS

Nobody should be evicted from their homes, have their utilities (including internet and cable, which are essential sources of information) shut off or see late fees accrue on any utility bills, or be issued debt-related warrants while this crisis impacts ability to pay. Where local government has such authority, this should be made law; where it does not, City Council and County Commission should pass resolutions calling on private entities to follow these policies. 

Sweeps of homeless camps must also be suspended during the pandemic and access resources for houseless individuals and families must be prioritized. Destroying the community infrastructure of houseless camps and forcing houseless individuals and families to new locations across the city and county could spread viruses, particularly if people do not know they have contracted the virus. Houseless individuals must also have access to free preventative measures and sanitation products, free medical testing, and free treatment. The City and County should open all vacant publicly owned buildings to houseless individuals or provide hotel vouchers for individuals to self-quarantine.

GUARANTEED TESTING, RELIEF, AND INFORMATION SHARING FOR AFFECTED PEOPLE

Local government must provide aid to those affected by the virus, either by becoming sick or through loss of work or income. All Knoxville and Knox County residents must be given access to testing for the virus. The City and County should create emergency relief funds to ensure those out of work without pay have the means to meet their essential needs and should explore partnerships with community organizations and options for providing information on access to and distributing essentials like safety supplies, household staples, and non-perishable food. The City and County must also find a means and establish partnerships to distribute meals for children at home due to any school closures or self-quarantine who would usually eat at school, as well as safe childcare options for families who rely on schools and afterschool programs.

The City and County should also prioritize not only information sharing of how not to get sick, but also information and resources for community members who become sick. Utilizing 311 and City and County websites as information centers for how to access resources once community members become sick is necessary to ensure that community members are prepared to care for one another during the pandemic. It is not enough to focus on prevention or link to the federal websites of the CDC - we need clear public health guidelines and resource connections for those who will become ill that are tailored for our community, our schools, and our workplaces.

Specific Demands

EXTENDED BENEFITS AND GUARANTEE OF EMPLOYMENT

- Guarantee paid sick leave to ALL City and County employees, not just those who have the ability to accumulate it
- Guarantee paid sick leave for the duration of illness or self-quarantine regardless of whether employees have enough accumulated leave
- Closed City and County workplaces must continue full pay to ALL employees, salaried and wage-labored, for duration of closure
- For City and County workplaces that don’t close, any employee able to work from home should be encouraged to do so with full pay
- Guarantee all City and County employees continued employment after leave no matter the duration of the pandemic
- Incentivize private businesses to follow all of these same policies
- Seek and distribute all federal and state aid packages available for our communities for wages lost
- Expand SNAP and WIC benefits and provide expedient pathways to distribution of benefits

AMNESTY FOR VULNERABLE POPULATIONS

- Guarantee non-enforcement of warrants and no immigration enforcement at homes, supermarkets, schools, traffic stops, healthcare sites, and other places where essential services provided

PROVIDE SAFETY AND JUSTICE IN THE CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM

- Meet all demands set by Community Defense of East Tennessee in their petition
- Provide free preventative measures and sanitation products, free medical testing, and free treatment to all incarcerated people
- Provide free phone calls and internet usage for all incarcerated people
- End bail-induced imprisonment and pre-trial detention
- Eliminate parole and probation revocations for technical violations
- Release incarcerated individuals of vulnerable populations including eldery, juvenile, pregnant, medically vulnerable, and chronically ill individuals
- Suspend in-person parole and probation meetings
- Reduce unnecessary parole and probation meetings
- Release persons deemed low-risk from parole and probation supervision

NO EVICTIONS OR SHUT OFFS 

- No evictions for duration of crisis
- No utility, internet, or cable shut-offs
- No sweeps of homeless camps and displacement of houseless individuals
- Provide free preventative measures and sanitation products, free medical testing, and free treatment to all houseless individuals
- Provide emergency housing to houseless individuals in all vacant publicly owned housing

RELIEF AND INFORMATION SHARING FOR AFFECTED PEOPLE

- Establish an emergency assistance fund for anyone out of work or income because of conditions related to the pandemic
- Distribute meals to families of children who rely on school breakfasts and lunches for daily sustenance
- Partner with community organizations and provide information on access to and distribution of essentials like safety supplies, household staples, and non-perishable food
- Utilize all communication outlets of the County and City to update the public on the outbreak, on preventative measures, and what community members need to do should they or their loved ones become ill