Mayor Andy Berke will reluctantly allow Chattanooga restaurants to reopen Monday, after a change in direction by Gov. Bill Lee on Friday which took away Chattanooga and other municipalities' authority to reopen at their own pace.
In a statement Sunday, Berke says that he was made aware Saturday that the governor's most recent executive order would supersede the city's orders designed to stem the spread of the COVID-19 global pandemic.
Lee's order allows county health departments in the state's six largest counties to decide whether to allow restaurants to reopen under the governor's statewide plan. Before Saturday, Berke's understanding was that both counties and cities in those populated areas would make their own decisions.
"Yesterday I learned that, despite public and private assurances otherwise, the city of Chattanooga would not be making its own decisions for the reopening of restaurants. This has understandably caused a lot of confusion for a lot of people in our city," Berke wrote Sunday, saying that he will abide by the governor's decision. "Chattanooga will obey the law, and I will do everything possible to ensure its success. I want every restaurant to make payroll, and I want to protect as many Chattanoogans as possible from contracting the coronavirus."
While he will follow the governor's order, Berke says he does not believe the reopening plan is a safe way to restart the local economy.
"Workers must feel confident that going back to their jobs will not threaten their health or their families' health. Consumers will only return to restaurants, shops, and other establishments if they know it is safe to do so," Berke wrote. "I do not believe that is accomplished under the state's current plan. It fails to account for the growing number of positive cases across the state, and especially in Southeast Tennessee."
"It lacks the groundwork we need to ensure that restaurant owners and managers understand their responsibilities and have the supplies they need to keep people safe from the virus," he added.
County Mayor Jim Coppinger, who decided earlier in the week that Hamilton County would follow the governor's plan, ultimately determining the same for Chattanooga, said Sunday that the plan is safe, despite Berke's comments.
"No one is being forced to reopen, and no one is being forced to go to a restaurant if they do not think it's safe," Coppinger told the Times Free Press. "As we've said all along, this is the first small step to try to bring our economy back while maintaining safety protocols. All this does is allows restaurants the opportunity to choose to open."
Coppinger also noted that the decision comes in the midst of the county's first weekend of completely open community testing which allowed 1,375 residents to get swabbed for the virus.
"It's getting better, and it's time to start reopening businesses responsibly," Coppinger said. "We're not just opening the gate, but we are allowing our citizens, who have been really educated and really responsible, to make that decision on whether they go out."
Berke, in his statement, concluded by promising Chattanooga will work to provide personal protective equipment and keep citizens safe, but cautioned citizens who may go out in public as businesses open.
"In the meantime, no matter what is happening in our economy, Chattanoogans should remember: you have a responsibility to keep yourself and those around you safe," he said. "Wear a mask when you go into the public. Wash your hands frequently. Stay six feet away from other people. Only go places that are observing best practices."
A spokesman for the governor responded to Berke's comments Sunday, defending the reopening plan.
"The Tennessee Pledge empowers businesses with next steps to keep employees and consumers safe and has been developed in consultation with industry leaders and medical professionals," Spokesman Gillum Ferguson wrote in an email to the Times Free Press. "The administration also consults with mayors across the state daily to ensure we work together to safely get Tennessee back to work."
Contact Sarah Grace Taylor at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6416. Follow her on Twitter @_sarahgtaylor.