Tennessee pastors criticize Gov. Lee's COVID-19 reopening plan, say more protections are needed for workers

Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Gov. Bill Lee, flanked by Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke, right,, and Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger, left,, speaks during a press conference at Wilson Air Center on Tuesday, April 14, 2020 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Pastors from across Tennessee are calling on Gov. Bill Lee to strengthen protections for workers as the state reopens and more people are asked to return to work.

Central to the reopening is Lee's "Tennessee Pledge," a 43-page document of guidelines for various businesses on how to reopen and keep customers and workers safe.

"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," Lee said last week.

However, critics of the pledge point out that it is without enforcement. The Tennessee Pledge is a suggestion, the pastors said Tuesday, which is worrying as the coronavirus continues to spread and businesses reopen.

Even with the data that is available, too much remains unknown about the spread of COVID-19 to ask people to return to work without the necessary protections, said the Rev. Brandon Gilvin, senior minister of First Christian Church.

"The best thing we can do in terms of public health is to incentivize flattening the curve," Gilvin said on the call. "We're essentially doing the opposite to that with this demand that folks get back to work."

(READ MORE: Health disparities in Hamilton County create high risk for COVID-19, analysis shows)

Without enforcement of the Tennessee Pledge, there is little ability for workers to speak out if working conditions are not safe, the pastors said, while employers have the ability to report employees who are not returning to work.

At the same time, workers who were laid off because of the shutdown could lose their unemployment benefits if they are called back to work but feel unsafe returning. According to the Tennessee Department of Labor, exceptions to the requirement include people who are diagnosed with COVID-19, caring for someone who is diagnosed or are unable to make it work because of an imposed quarantine, for example. Workers with children who are out of school because of the pandemic are allowed to stay out of work only until the school year is over.

The Tuesday afternoon call was organized by the Southern Christian Coalition, a group of Christian leaders that advocates for theology-based policy. The group has at times been critical of Lee's leadership, such as his decision not to expand Medicaid in the state.

On Tuesday, the pastors focused on Lee's public declarations of faith and praised him for previously agreeing to continue resettling refugees in the state.

The Rev. Dawn Bennett, pastor of The Table in Nashville, said Lee must continue to remember the Christian call to care for the least in society.

"Gov. Lee has chosen economics over empathy and that is simply not the way of Christ," Bennett said.

The question of reopening has split communities across the state and county. There was conflict over it in Hamilton County last month as county Mayor Jim Coppinger announced the county would follow Lee's recommendations, despite Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke planning a slower return of businesses. Coppinger and the county health department overruled Berke, leading to the reopening of restaurants this month and, most recently, swimming pools.

Daily new case counts have been increasing in the county since the beginning of the month. Last week, the Hamilton County Health Department said the recent spike in cases was due to the spread of COVID-19 in workplaces that were never closed and among family members.

Contact Wyatt Massey at wmassey@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @news4mass.