Tennessee prepares to lift restaurant seating caps, allow theaters, 'large attractions' to reopen amid COVID-19 crisis

Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / A sign highlighting social distancing is seen on the door at Purple Daisy Picnic Cafe on Monday, April 27, 2020 in Chattanooga, Tenn. R
Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / A sign highlighting social distancing is seen on the door at Purple Daisy Picnic Cafe on Monday, April 27, 2020 in Chattanooga, Tenn. R

NASHVILLE - As he continues relaxing Tennessee's COVID-19 restrictions, Gov. Bill Lee announced Friday that the state beginning late next week will remove capacity caps on restaurants and stores as well as allow movie theaters and even "large attractions" to reopen.

"Tennesseans have worked incredibly hard to do their part and help slow the spread of COVID-19 so that our state can begin to reopen," the Republican governor said in a statement. "Thanks to their continued efforts, we're able to allow restaurants and retail businesses to operate at greater capacity and large attractions to open in a safe and thoughtful way."

Lee said the state's downward trend in case growth for the potentially deadly coronavirus infections "meets the White House criteria for a phased reopening."

Calling the progress "hard-won," Lee said, "We can build upon it by reopening while also maintaining common-sense safety measures like mask-wearing and good hygiene. By taking the Tennessee Pledge, our businesses can reopen in a way that protects the health of their customers and employees, and protects the livelihoods of hard-working Tennesseans."

The governor's "Tennessee Pledge" guidelines are voluntary.

Lee said changes in current restrictions come from recommendations made by the Economic Recovery Group he appointed to address the economic crisis accompanying the pandemic. The group includes state officials and business representatives. With soaring unemployment and April 24 estimates indicating Tennessee faced at that time a $5 billion hit to its gross domestic product, Lee has been taking ever increasing steps to reopen the economy.

Lee's plan applies to the 89 of the 95 Tennessee counties with state-run health departments. That list doesn't include the state's six counties that run their own health departments: Hamilton, Knox, Davidson, Shelby, Sullivan and Madison counties.

In Hamilton County, Mayor Jim Coppinger has readily gone along with Lee's previous recommendations, last month surprising Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke, who planned a slower reopening than that favored by Lee, only to be overruled by Coppinger and the county health department.

Among the recommendations now being issued by Lee is one allowing large attractions including movie and dinner theaters, race tracks and museums to reopen. For the Tennessee Aquarium, that would fit in with plans for a mid-June reopening.

Restrictions on social gatherings of more than 10 people "remain in place for the time being," according to the Lee administration.

While scratching current restaurant capacity restrictions - the current recommendations calls for no more than 50% - the move is intended to allow for increased service provided that social distancing guidelines, including 6 feet between tables, are adhered to.

According to Lee, Tennessee has met White House guidelines on reopening. The list he cites includes decreases in "influenza-like" illnesses reported within a 14-day period as well as a downward trajectory of COVID-like "syndromic cases" reported within a 14-day period.

Other factors can include a downward trajectory of positive tests as a percent of total tests within a 14-day period and hospitals' ability to "treat all patients without crisis care" with infections of COVID-19 hospitalizations expected to occur with increased social interaction.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com. Follow on Twitter @AndySher1.