Interview by Jason T. Plunk
Some would say that the more Oxford grows, the less small town appeal it has. Not for me—Oxford’s small town bones will always be apparent. I remember a time when there was exactly one bar on The Square if you didn’t count pitchers of Budweiser at Dino’s Pizza.
I’ve known the publisher of The Local Voice since we started first grade together, and I’ve known Mayor Robyn Tannehill since we worked the first Double Decker side-by-side.
So when I said yes to interviewing her about pandemic-related topics, I immediately regretted it. I’m protective of my friendship with Robyn and more than once have defended her in conversations I never even mentioned to her.
After this piece runs, we will look back on it and laugh … or we will no longer be keeping our monthly lunch date.
Why furlough now?
The City saves the same amount of money whether we furloughed in May or September. We knew the furloughed employees would make an extra $600 a week through the CARES Act if we did it now as compared to the fall.
Where does information come from in terms of guiding your decision making?
Several places. CDC (Center for Disease Control) guidelines, Mississippi Department of Health, and three local health care providers who help us look at this information as it relates to Oxford. Compassion and common sense play a role as well, because so much of this is a gray area. Data literally changes every day—sometimes hourly.
As mayor you face plenty of criticism. What insult or meme has stung the worst?
The most ridiculous was [a rumor about] me flying to Atlanta to get my hair done. It was so far-fetched, I made Rhea go get me a tape measure to measure my roots.
The most hateful—any insults to my family all tie for the worst. The tax my family has paid for me being Mayor is something no mother or wife wants to endure.
Will things ever get back to normal?
You know? The Whiskey Speech comes to mind. If you ask me whether we will get back to normal in terms of economics … yes, so much of Oxford’s economic success is dependent on tourism and the university. When students return, things will get back to normal.
Having said that, if you’re asking me if Oxford will be the same in terms of our community … through this, we’ve learned that relationships are critical. We are a community that cares for each other, and we have learned that we all can simply get by on less. So will we be normal? Yes, but it will be a new normal.
How do you respond to the Keyboard Cowboys on Social Media who claim the mask requirement is unconstitutional?
There are three Mississippi Codes that grant a mayor and board of aldermen the authority to make rules and regulations necessary for emergency management purposes.
If Local Voice readers want to read them (after they finish reading this paper, of course), MS Code Section 45-17-7, MS Code Section 33-15-31, and MS Code Section 21-19-3 all address this issue.
I am aware that people who are upset with the face-covering requirements won’t have their minds changed by reading these, but I hope they at least understand that these decisions are made with the safety of all our citizens in mind.
It seems from the outside looking in, restaurants and bars are getting held to a higher standard of caution? You have referred to yourself a straight shooter, so shoot it to me straight.
The standards they are held to are due to the fact that people eating obviously can’t eat wearing masks, the kitchen and wait staff touch so many things in preparing meals, and the factor of being in such close contact. The virus is easier to spread in public dining rooms. Requirements had to be made with all of the public in mind.
Your office has been ground zero for a lot. What’s the craziest call to come in?
We’ve had calls from people screaming into the phone so loudly, we couldn’t understand them. So I really don’t know the craziest since the calls keep coming in.
Do you think there will have to be another shutdown?
We appreciate all the things these businesses have gone through to reopen. It’s our hope that a shutdown isn’t something we have to revisit. Any discussion would have to do with hospital capacity and not the number of positive cases.
When our city is back full speed ahead, what is Oxford’s plan to get our tourism industry back?
We are not sure what the future holds for large events in the short term, so we are working hard to create smaller events that are not football-related. Creating other reasons to spend a weekend in Oxford are high priorities. Art shows, live music on The Square in the late afternoon, and a number of other ideas that Visit Oxford is exploring. Once we all come out of hiding, there will be more reasons than ever to come to Oxford.
What has been your biggest “oh shit” moment throughout this?
Our first positive case. Until March 18, everything was surreal. We knew it was coming, we put together an Infectious Diseases Manual in February as we were hearing of cases in other parts of the nation, but when we got the first positive case in Lafayette County, reality set in quick. That was the moment things got real.