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Staff file photo / Shikela Ray, a tire building machine operator, works during the grand opening of the $360 million Nokian Tyres production plant in late 2019 in Dayton, Tennessee.

The path ahead for Chattanooga area companies won't look like the one before COVID-19, but rather have a higher health focus to save lives and prevent another economic lockdown, experts say.

"We'll never go back to the pre-COVID days," said Denise Rice, the manufacturing consultant for the Tennessee Manufacturers Association. "We have to make sure we do this not only to protect and save lives but to not go back into this economic shut down. We don't want to have a repeat of this."

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee has set up an economic recovery group, a venture between state departments, legislators and private sector leaders, for guidance to safely reboot the economy. Lee has a goal of reopening the economy by May 1.

In Georgia, Gov. Brian Kemp has extended the public health state of emergency through May 13. Kemp has said it appears that some parts of the state are ready to get back to business, but it will be gradual and based on data.

Nokian Tyres in Dayton, Tennessee, shut down tire production on March 27 at its new plant to safeguard employees, and officials are evaluating how to prevent COVID-19's spread after it reopens at some date.

Company spokesman Wes Boling said that safety is a core value, adding there are measures it has identified to implement such as enhanced cleaning, social distancing and others.

"I can confidently say we'll leave measures in place as long at the Centers for Disease Control recommends doing so and likely longer," Boling said.

Other companies such as LaFayette, Georgia, oven maker Roper Corp., considered an essential business, has kept production running. But, the GE Appliances company put into effect an array of health procedures for its 2,000-person workforce, though it drew fire on social media and from some employees and in the community.

Dr. Gary Voccio, health director for the Georgia Department of Public Health's Northwest Health District who toured Roper last week in response to complaints, said it seems the company is responsibly doing about all it can to prevent workplace exposures, reduce the potential for transmission among employees, and maintain a healthy business operation and work environment.

"No place, no course of action is 100% 'safe' during the worse pandemic since 1918," said Voccio. "We must all assume there's some degree of risk wherever we are, whatever we're doing, and take personal responsibility to take every precaution, no matter how small or demanding, to make ourselves and others as safe as possible."

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Find UT COVID-19 resources here.

 

Some believe that business and industry will deal with COVID-19 for months and potentially years to come. More testing to determine who has the virus and who already had it, and the availability of a vaccine, will shape future strategies.

Rice, who sits on an economic recovery subgroup for the Tennessee panel that's expected to make some recommendations as early as next week, said a coronavirus vaccine may not come for 12 to 18 months.

"For many months, we'll be putting these [recommendations] in place," she said.

Rice boiled them down to two major areas — health and cleanliness and technology improvements.

"How do we maintain manufacturing in new procedures and to provide a healthy workplace?" she asked. "What does a safe and healthy workplace look like?

Also, technology improvements can help, such as putting in motion-detection lights and voice-activated gadgetry at high-touch areas in the workplace, Rice said.

In addition, the practice of working from home, done widely since the outbreak, is another measure which can be embraced, she said.

Additionally, Rice said experts are examining what other countries are doing and planning.

"There's incredible knowledge among manufacturers," she said. "Our mission is to share those best practices as they reopen so manufacturers can have all the tools at their disposal."

Doug Berry, the Cleveland-Bradley County Chamber of Commerce's vice president of economic development, said there's going to be "a pretty significant difference" in the way businesses transition back in.

"Manufacturers will continue to monitor employees on regular basis, establish spacing guidelines for operations, and possibly adjust shift patterns to spread the employee base as work allows," he said.

Also, Berry said, he expects companies to spend a considerable time doing crisis management planning "and prepare themselves better for another event of this nature."

"We all recognize we've kind of taken for granted plans we need put into place so we're prepared to deal with unforeseen circumstances," he said.

Berry said he's seeing discussions about reshoring jobs which had been shipped to China.

"We've exposed the weaknesses of those short-term thinking processes," he said.

The University of Tennessee Center for Industrial Services, which lists a wide variety of actions manufacturers can take to combat COVID-19 at the workplace, asked if companies will "look for the opportunity in the midst of uncertainty?"

"We can choose to use any extra time we have to plan, to look for talent now, to increase our roster of A-players later, to start thinking of how to minimize future supply chain disruption through reshoring products, and to plan for 18 months from now when we can again invest in new ways of doing things," the center said.

Roper parent GE Appliances said there's a team of people which has been meeting to review the best actions to protect employee health.

"We are continuously auditing new COVID-19 health and safety protocols and coaching our team members for improvements as we all get used to this different way of working safety together," according to the company.

Contact Mike Pare at mpare@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @MikePareTFP.

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