With 15% of the state's workforce - or over 400,000 people - having filed for unemployment and $870 million in revenue lost during the month of March, Gov. Bill Lee will lift COVID-19 prevention restrictions on churches, gyms and other industries next week.
After noting that state officials project a $5 billion loss in gross domestic product for Tennessee in 2020, due to the economic impact of the virus, Lee said at a news conference on Friday that he will spell out plans for reopening certain medical offices, athletic facilities and churches across most of the state next week.
"I tasked the unified command group and Tennessee's economic recovery group - with input from health experts, state and local partners in business and industry leaders - to build what we are calling the Tennessee Pledge," Lee said. "It includes specific recommendations which enable most businesses to reopen responsibly without the burden of heavy mandates."
After announcing Thursday that restaurants and stores will be allowed to reopen in 89 of the state's 95 counties early next week, the governor also recommended Friday that restaurants take precautions like keeping tables 6 feet apart, keeping bar areas closed and preventing live music.
While Hamilton County is not required to follow Lee's plans, Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger told the Times Free Press late Friday that he will stay in step with the governor, allowing local restaurants and retail to open under the same stipulations.
He encouraged employees in both industries to wear cloth face coverings, and asked business owners to follow federal guidelines for hygiene and sanitation to prevent the spread of the virus.
According to Lee, the state will not enforce guidelines spelled out in the pledge, but will trust businesses and consumers to operate safely under the new guidance.
"Much of our state's current success in this fight is because Tennesseans naturally choose to put each other first. They naturally choose to voluntarily adapt to safe practices," Lee said. "It's that volunteer spirit that has been fighting this pandemic, and it's that same volunteer spirit that will help us rebuild our economy."
The governor said that his decision to reopen many businesses in the state came after weeks of watching for downturns in flu and COVID symptoms in Tennessee hospitals, a decrease in the coronavirus death rate across the state, increased community testing and a slower speed of disease spread.
When asked if the increased number of cases in the state over the past three days had deterred the governor from lifting restrictions, he said that the increases were due to a high number of cases reported in a local jail, not a trend across the state.
Lee also said that some industries, like tattoo parlors and other personal services, will remain closed for at least the next two weeks as social distancing in those places is "virtually impossible."
While 89 of the state's 95 counties are required to follow the governor's plan, which will ultimately result in the state fully "reopening" under these guidelines on May 1, the six largest counties and municipalities (including Hamilton County) are allowed to form their own economic restart guidelines because they have their own health departments.
"We want to work, by the way, with the remaining six counties to make sure that those largest metro areas develop their own unique reopening strategy that will be complementary to the work that we're doing," Lee said.
While Hamilton County and seven local municipalities have signed on to follow the governor's plan to at least some extent, Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke has said he will follow "data not dates" and not set an "arbitrary" reopening date, meaning Berke's restrictions spelled out in a series of executive orders will still be in place within city limits.
Berke told the Times Free Press Friday that he will roll out a phased plan on reopening businesses affected by his executive orders next week, but that these businesses will not be reopening at the same rate as in the state, county and nearby Georgia.
After concern from some local businesses who fear they will lose business to nearby competition in the county as those businesses open and Chattanooga remains closed, Berke says he wishes local leaders were on the same page.
"I am distraught that we have this kind of discrepancy between businesses in the city and those around it," he said Friday. "I have heard from many businesses owners over the last few days. Some have said they don't want to open but are worried about losing customers to those on the outskirts of town...Nevertheless, it's my duty to look at the public health implications of this and make the decision that I think is best for the ppl of Chattanooga."
Berke said that he "absolutely" fears that surrounding areas open will cause an increase in COVID-19 cases within the city as residents travel to nearby businesses and increase their exposure.
"I think everybody admits that the opening of the economy in this fashion will increase our numbers," he said. "We know that that's the case and I hear it from our constituents as well. I hope that doesn't happen. I really want this to succeed. I want the openings everywhere to be successful, whether it's inside or outside of the city...I just believe that the better course of action is to continue to have benchmarks that we're meeting and keeping track of so it can be the safest for everyone and the most prosperous for the businesses."
The plan will be based in part on a broader plan written by the Big Four Economic Restart Task Force which includes representatives of Tennessee's four large metropolitan areas, but will be tailored by Berke to fit Chattanooga specifically.
"As we look forward, I am going to take that report and start to refine the recommendations to be focused on our community," Berke said. "Obviously we have had much of the work done for several days, but we are still looking at how to make it specific to Chattanooga."
Berke Chief of Staff Kerry Hayes told reporters during a local COVID-19 task force briefing on Tuesday that he expects it to be around May 1 before the city sees the data from increased testing that will even allow them to consider a time frame for reopening.
Contact Sarah Grace Taylor at email@example.com or 423-757-6416. Follow her on Twitter @_sarahgtaylor.