NBC report calls Chattanooga a hotspot in coronavirus pandemic

Leaders challenged to balance economic, public health concerns

Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Free masks are seen outside of the Hamilton County Health Department on Monday, July 6, 2020 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

As coronavirus cases increase, local leaders are grappling to balance economic and public health concerns as Chattanooga draws national attention as a coronavirus hotspot.

On Tuesday, NBC News cited a hasty reopening of businesses in late April, a lack of consistent social distancing and mask use, and contact tracing that can't keep up as cases climb for increasing case counts in Chattanooga.

But Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger, who said he hadn't read the NBC report, said the rise in cases 'had nothing to do with the reopening' of businesses.

"The Health Department has done an unbelievable job at keeping up and managing this pandemic, it's just we've been hit extra hard with the spread," he said. "We want to keep the economy open, we want to keep businesses open, we want to see our schools be able to open back on time and our students to go back and be face to face with the teachers and have the entire experience of growing up."

Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke, however, cited rushed reopening as a source of coronavirus spread, saying the fight against the virus will not end any time soon and people need to be prepared to adjust their daily lives in the long term.

"Right now, we're seeing the results of people attempting to return to life pre-COVID too quickly," he said. "Confirmed cases, hospitalizations, and deaths are all on the rise in our community because people are not taking this virus seriously."

On July 1, the Hamilton County Health Department announced 118 new COVID-19 infections, its largest single-day increase. The increase in cases, as well as a new jump in hospitalizations, comes after the deadliest month for the coronavirus in the county in June.

As of Saturday, 2,818 Hamilton County residents had tested positive for COVID-19 since the pandemic began, and 35 Hamilton County residents had died from the disease.

A mask mandate handed down Monday by Coppinger came in response to rising numbers, but he said the decision to wait until now to impose the requirement that people wear masks in public places was the right call.

"Today we have over 50 people in the hospital," Coppinger said on Tuesday. "The reason we've stepped up with the mask mandate is we're seeing an increase in those numbers."

Barry White, the CEO of the Chattanooga Tourism Company, applauded the mandate, and praised local attractions that coordinated to keep guests and employees safe during the Fourth of July holiday weekend.

"We strongly believe that the local mask mandate will strengthen the Tennessee Pledge and CDC guidelines and will ultimately slow future spread," White said. "We're glad those steps were taken."

The growing number of coronavirus cases in Chattanooga and other Southern cities threatens to slow down any economic recovery, said the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, which serves many of the Southern states now showing a jump in coronavirus infections.

"There are a couple of things that we are seeing and some of them are troubling and might suggest that the trajectory of this recovery is going to be a bit bumpier than it might otherwise," said Dr. Raphael Bostic, the head of the Atlanta Fed.

In a Zoom meeting Tuesday with leaders from the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce, the Tennessee Business Roundtable and other business groups in the Volunteer State, Bostic said he is concerned that more cases of the virus could limit the pace of the economic recovery.

"People are getting nervous again and business leaders are getting worried and there is a real sense that this virus might go on longer than we had expected or planned for, and that lack of confidence is a critical thing that we all need to be mindful of," Bostic said. "So much of our economy is based upon confidence."

Berke said the costs of another round of business shutdowns would be even more difficult to bear than the initial phase, which closed many businesses from mid-March to late April in Tennessee.

"If people refuse to comply with this [mask] mandate, we'll continue to see a public health crisis plague our city that could lead to continued economic damage to our community," he said. "If we have to shut down our economy again, given the decline in our revenue from COVID, we don't have the same ability to support employees or business owners as we did even three months ago."

This is not the first time the Chattanooga area has made national headlines for the spread of the coronavirus. In June, Cleveland, Tennessee, ranked seventh on The New York Times nationwide list of emerging COVID-19 outbreaks. The following week, the growth in local cases landed Chattanooga at No. 2 on a New York Times list of "places that could flare up next," based on the average daily growth rate of deaths.

More than 60 critical care physicians from across Tennessee expressed their frustration Monday over increasing COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, calling on Gov. Bill Lee to issue a statewide face mask mandate, enforce safety guidelines and allow mayors to make public health decisions in their cities.

Coppinger said he was disappointed the NBC article failed to mention the extensive collaboration with the state and across the county on expanding testing and community outreach.

"I was taken aback by the fact that no one seemed to mention the good things that are going on," he said. "That's important to our county and the 10 municipalities in our county, it's important on a national level to still have confidence in what's gong on here so people want to come here, bring their businesses here, expand their businesses here."

Staff Writer Dave Flessner contributed to this report.

Contact Mary Fortune at mfortune@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6653. Follow her on Twitter at @maryfortune.