Chattanooga restaurants will be allowed to reopen on a limited basis Monday, despite an executive order from Mayor Andy Berke, according to Gov. Bill Lee's office.
Lee announced last week he would allow restaurants to open at half capacity beginning Monday in 89 of Tennessee's 95 counties, after weeks of closures to prevent the spread of COVID-19, excluding larger counties like Chattanooga's Hamilton County. Lee said he would allow the six largest counties to make their own decisions.
Berke said that he would continue his restrictions for Chattanooga, while Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger said he would reopen based on the governor's guidance.
On Saturday, Lee spokesman Gillum Ferguson told the Chattanooga Times Free Press that the governor's executive order gives the authority to county health departments, not cities.
"Paragraphs 4-6 of the governor's order supersede and preempt any contrary local orders concerning the operation of restaurants, except for orders by the six locally run county health departments (Shelby, Madison, Davidson, Hamilton, Knox, and Sullivan counties)," Ferguson wrote.
"Contrary local orders concerning the operation of restaurants are superseded by this order, except for orders issued by county health departments in the six counties listed above."
Berke's chief of staff, Kerry Hayes, told the Times Free Press that the mayor's office has sought clarity from the governor but has not been told if Berke's order to have restaurants remain closed will hold up.
"Throughout the day, we have received conflicting information from the governor's office about Executive Order 29, and what it specifically allows Mayor Berke to do, under state statute, to regulate businesses and protect the health of our citizens," Hayes said by email late Saturday. "We have made a request to his office to provide us clear guidance so that we may give the public full and accurate details about what they can expect this week. We will be glad to provide further information once it is available to us."
Hayes said that while the governor's office had not answered requests for clarity from Berke's office on Saturday, the city will not "disobey" any of the governor's orders.
When asked about their role in the equation, a Hamilton County Health Department spokesman deferred to the county mayor, whose office later sent a statement saying that "all" Hamilton County restaurants will be allowed to reopen on Monday.
"The Hamilton County Health Department will open restaurants based on the authority delegated by Governor Bill Lee in his latest Executive Order No. 29, released on Friday," the statement reads. "All restaurants shall comply with the guidelines found in the "Tennessee Pledge: Reopening Tennessee Responsibly" document, found on Hamilton County's website at www.HamiltonTN.gov or on the state of Tennessee's website at www.TN.gov."
The order apparently came as a shock to Berke, who had said several times throughout the week that he would follow "data not dates" and roll out his own phased plan next week to explain when and how the city would reopen restaurants and other businesses.
"I am distraught that we have this kind of discrepancy between businesses in the city and those around it," he told the Times Free Press Friday. "I have heard from many business 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 people of Chattanooga."
Berke said that he "absolutely" fears that surrounding areas opening 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."
According to Lee on Friday, 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."
When asked if the city would be subjected to following the state or county as other businesses reopen in the coming weeks, Ferguson said that "based upon the executive order, this just pertains to restaurants."
Contact Sarah Grace Taylor at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6416. Follow her on Twitter @_sarahgtaylor.