Hamilton County mayor recommends restaurants, bars end dine-in service amid COVID-19 concerns

Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Mayor Jim Coppinger speaks during a press conference announcing a confirmed case of the coronavirus in Hamilton County at the McDaniel Building on Friday, March 13, 2020 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

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Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger is calling for bars and restaurants to close their doors to in-store dining until further notice amid COVID-19 concerns.

As the number of cases in the state and country rise, Coppinger has offered a recommendation that these types of businesses not allow patrons to sit inside as a matter of social distancing to prevent the spread of the virus.

His recommendation comes five days after the first case was confirmed in the county, and does not apply to pharmacies, grocery stores or convenience stores.

(READ MORE: Chattanooga area restaurants changing menus, service due to coronavirus fears)

"What we don't want are people in the dining areas congregating and coming in close contact with each other. Ensuring the health and safety of our residents is top priority," Coppinger said in a release Wednesday afternoon.

Restaurants are still able to provide delivery, take-out and drive-through options but are discouraged from having dine-in customers.

Asked if he would enforce such a rule on Tuesday, Coppinger told the Times Free Press that it was up to the state.

After a news conference at which two new local cases of the virus were announced, Coppinger said he believes citizens of Hamilton County will do the right thing and the situation will not require a full-on mandate.

"It's hard to mandate someone to not do something like that, and I believe Hamilton County will choose to do the safe thing," he said after the news conference. "We want to make the recommendation so that everyone is safe, but people can and should still patronize small businesses with take-out and what have you."

Meanwhile, Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke, who announced a state of emergency in the city just hours before the first local case was announced on Friday, says he is considering what similar action may be warranted in the city.

"We continue to review all options that will encourage appropriate social distancing in the interests of keeping Chattanoogans safe," Berke said five days after the priest of a prominent downtown church was identified as the first local case. "We recognize that may require some additional actions on the part of city government."

Throughout the process, Hamilton County and Chattanooga officials have only appeared in public together once and have been approaching issues such as public meetings and states of emergency differently.

Still, Coppinger says the two are working close together.

"We're definitely all working together on this response," the county mayor told the Times Free Press late Wednesday. "We have different roles but are staying in close contact to make sure we keep everyone as safe as possible."

Contact Sarah Grace Taylor at staylor@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6416. Follow her on Twitter @_sarahgtaylor.