Health Department officials were on the scene of the All Black Affair at least twice Saturday, Nov. 28, the day of the Hickory Hill party widely scorned on social media for what appears to be flagrant abuses of COVID-19 restrictions.
Curtis Givens, the owner of In Love Memphis at 7144 Winchester Road where the party was held, is under investigation.
The first inspection occurred about 3:45 p.m. when everything seemed to be fine, said Dr. Bruce Randolph, medical officer for the Shelby County Health Department.
The party did not start until 4 p.m.
Inspectors returned around 8 p.m. and noted violations, including a lack of social distancing and mask use.
“This was occurring in a tent outside. There was some confusion about whether a tent is considered indoors or outdoors,” Randolph said.
“At that particular time, there wasn’t a decision to close the facility.”
The Health Department did not immediately respond to a question about why the inspectors didn’t realize that an outdoor party tent is not the same as an outdoor event.
“It’s really important to recognize that an enclosed tent, even though it’s on a parking lot or it’s outside the normal structure of a building, is still an enclosed space,” Health Department Director Alisa Haushalter said at the Tuesday, Dec. 1, COVID-19 task force briefing.
“And it is therefore treated as enclosed space.”
The Health Department is working to corroborate eyewitness and law enforcement accounts of what happened, including the number of people on the premises.
The event was promoted for weeks on social media by Givens’ company, GCI Entertainment. Party-goers could choose from three venues at the address, including the large “bubble” or tent set up in the parking lot. It was attached by a walkway to the indoor venue and patio.
Givens is a longtime Memphis club owner. He did not respond to requests for comment.
Randolph said Givens and In Love were cited in September for operating as a bar when such venues were closed by a public health order. Givens then applied to operate as a full-service restaurant and was allowed to reopen.
On subsequent inspections, including on Nov. 17, health inspectors found no violations.
The Health Department’s own records show that the club was cited Oct. 10. No violations in September were logged, according to the Health Department’s public record of COVID inspections.
While people are good about reporting COVID-19 abuses to the Health Department, including photos, the Health Department needs testimony it cannot get from photos.
“They’re really viewed as hearsay,” Haushalter said. “We have to have corroborating evidence from an eyewitness at the event.”
But photos help build a case, she said, noting they must have a date stamp and information that identifies the location.
The Health Department has worked with Givens to make sure day-to-day operations are safe.
But a party as large as All Black Affair is considered a special event. Eyewitness accounts said hundreds of cars were in the parking lot. The Health Department should have been notified ahead of time for its review and technical assistance.
According to posts on Givens’ Facebook account, the bubble was a way to circumnavigate the restrictions by offering an outdoor venue.
From photographs on social media, the tent was fully enclosed. The distinction is important because many restaurants offer outdoor eating.
“Once you start closing it in and putting up plastic and zipping things up, that really increases the risk of transmission,” Haushalter said. “Outside really means outside with the air being able to circulate through the space without any barriers whatsoever.”
The Health Department’s posture has been to educate business owners first and apply sanctions on the second offense.
In this case, part of the investigation is internal, Randolph said, including failures that may have contributed to the event even taking place.
“So please do not interpret our lack of immediate response to your particular timetable as an indication that we are not intending to do something,” he said. “We will respond.”
For months, Randolph has said that the legality of an event doesn’t preclude people from using their own judgment about attending.
“We all have a role to play in preventing and controlling the transmission of this virus … Just because it is open, you should not go.”
“In the meantime, I want to say to the individuals, you must exercise judgment. For months, we have characterized this virus. We have repeated over and over how this virus is transmitted, things you can do to at least help prevent – it may not 100% prevent – but lower the risk of spreading the virus as well as getting infected.”
Haushalter said information from 303 contact tracing interviews in November show that 76% continued to go to work while infectious, almost 40% continued to engage in social or public activities (such as shopping or going to restaurants) and 3% continued going to school.
“People continue to go to work when infectious and pose risk to others,” Haushalter said.
She said the case average for the past seven days is 361 cases per day, a slight decrease from when Health Directive 15 was issued Nov. 20.
“Our reproductive rate is about 1, a slight improvement,” she said. “We want it lower than 1. Test positivity is above 10%. We want it less than 10%, but ideally less than 5%.”
Current Coronavirus Statistics
- 48,714 total cases
- 609 new cases
- 672 total deaths
- 3,730 active cases
- Biggest infected group, those aged 25-34, then 35-44.