It was late June when Nashville officials shared a plan to provide temporary quarantine housing to vulnerable COVID-19 patients. It was the kind of arrangement already happening in other cities.
But Metro’s version has languished.
Thus far, an 11-page proposal has failed to move from proposal to reality, frustrating the frontline organizations that saw it as one tool for slowing the spread of the coronavirus among the vulnerable residents with whom they work.
The initial plan aimed for a Sept. 1 start and came with a hoteling price tag of under $200,000 for the first four months — a fraction of other multi-million-dollar relief efforts that Metro has covered with federal CARES Act dollars.
“Once we looked at the allowable use for CARES Act funding for certain aspects of what was in the proposal, it had to be pretty strongly revised,” says Leslie Waller, an epidemiologist with the Metro Public Health Department.
The proposal had been a source of hope for many — including nonprofits that have wondered for when hotel vouchers would be issued.
The feeling is acute in Southeast Nashville, which has been one of the city’s leading hotspots for much of the pandemic. High case counts there have been driven in part by large and multi-generational households, which make it difficult to quarantine.
As of June 30, as infections were spiking, health officials were telling councilmembers about the idea of quarantine hotel rooms.
Even before that, advocates for unhoused Nashvillians had pushed Metro to provide private rooms in addition to its group shelters at the Nashville Fairgrounds.
Brian Haile, CEO of Neighborhood Health, which works closely with unhoused people, says they’re “having ongoing discussions with Metro about the appropriateness of placement.
“While we certainly honor all of the work that’s gone into the Fairgrounds, and we know how important that facility is, the question really is: Is this the right place for us to bring COVID-positive folks and have them stay alongside people who were awaiting COVID test results?”
In the meantime, some nonprofits have gotten some help from private funders paying for a few hotel rooms.
“And what we need now is government to bring the resources and scale to bear that’s required in this moment of emergency,” Haile said.
He points to other cities that have successfully purchased underused motels and converted them to temporary housing or, more simply, rented rooms as quarantine space.
He says any of those approaches could work in Davidson County.
“The fact of the matter is we’re looking at a watch and we’ve been patient,” he says.
Lisa Sherman-Nikolaus, executive director of the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, shares in the frustration.
“We are six months into the pandemic and we still don’t have a hotel voucher program,” she says, noting that more wraparound services are also needed to make hotel vouchers a viable option for immigrants and refugees.
“It really has to be a holistic approach because people aren’t going to effectively quarantine at home, or in a hotel, if they don’t also have access to paid sick time, if they don’t have access to food and other resources that ensure that they’re able to continue to pay their bills, and live in their home, and take care of their families,” says Sherman-Nikolaus.
Waller, with the health department, says she understands the process seems slow and complicated.
But now a second version of the proposal is moving forward. It shares many specifics from the initial draft. But its scope has zeroed in on immigrant households, with far less emphasis on helping people without homes.
Waller, though, says there may still be help for them.
“If there is an instance where we can reasonably give someone a hotel room,” she says, “we would like to do that for that case.”
Waller says the new proposal must be reviewed by multiple Metro departments and community partners.
Those steps will take additional time.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the last name of the CEO of Neighborhood Health. It’s Haile, not Hale.