Brett Withers outside the newly renovated Holly Street firehouse. Photo by Chuck Allen

Brett Withers

Serving on Nashville’s Metropolitan Council has never been an easy job, but try doing it during a pandemic. Or how about during a pandemic that hits at about the same time a tornado has decimated your district along with several others? District 6 Councilman Brett Withers found himself in that unenviable position last March. “As the tornado recovery was going on and we had people out there doing volunteer work, which was great, we became concerned that the tornado recovery was going to become a super-spreader event itself,” he says. “I feel good that we were able to get to a good place in the recovery. We got a lot of debris picked up, buildings stabilized, tarps on roofs, got people into alternative housing, but then we had to call off the volunteer effort in late March.”.

Things went downhill from there. “The main frustration in terms of governing here was that the federal response was not coordinated very well, and then our [Republican] governor has not been willing to coordinate resources at the state level, but it’s not an entirely partisan issue,” says Withers. He compares the response in Tennessee to his home state of Ohio, which is also led by a Republican governor. There the governor implemented a number of strict COVID protocols like closing bars and restaurants, as well as a mask mandate, and kept them in place for a long time.

“He was following the science, the CDC,” observes Withers. “We didn’t have anything like that at the state level here, which would have helped everyone get stocked up with PPE and hand sanitizer, because for months we were scrambling to get that stuff. Governor Lee would not even do a statewide mask mandate which has been proven to be effective elsewhere at containing the spread.”

Metro Council shifted to virtual meetings last spring, went back to in-person this fall, then went back to virtual as the infection rates began to go up around the holidays. They’ll likely be back in person after the end of March if rates go back down again, which seems likely with the vaccination rollout. Withers is glad about that because he feels in-person meetings facilitate governing. “It allows for more informal information sharing sometimes and relationship building. It helps when you know the person better; it helps to understand where they’re coming from or what their concerns might be or their constituents’ concerns, if you have more of that background. It sounds like a little thing, but it’s not. We’re a 40-member body. That’s a lot of people, and if you only see each other on Zoom you become just a talking head to each other.”

There is one advantage to Zoom, though, Withers observes. “It gives a means of doing the virtual hand raise, which is actually very helpful in conducting meetings because people kind of wait their turn to speak for the most part.”

One issue the council is facing at the moment is the perception of equity around the vaccine rollout. State parameters have designated certain groups to receive priority based on age vulnerability and on profession. So of course the elderly are prioritized because they are the most vulnerable, and that makes sense. In the case of nurses and teachers, designated by the state for vaccination priority because of their work, the demographic of the professions, says Withers, trends young, white, and female. “It’s not like we’re out to vaccinate just young white women. We know that people of color tend to die from COVID more than other people for complicated reasons. The state has mandated these parameters. A lot of those social, racial, economic equity pieces have been a real challenge to implement in the vaccination rollout with such limited supply at first, but we’re working on it with the health department. It’s going to improve with a little bit of time and more rollout.”

Withers, who himself had a mild case of COVID earlier this year, is eager to see East Nashville recover its economic health once more people are vaccinated. “East Nashville’s economy is so heavily based on independent bars, restaurants, and music venues, so the sooner it’s safe to go out and support your favorite restaurant and favorite live music venue, the better off we’ll all be.”