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Former U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, who urged the Trump administration last month against heeding calls for a four-month nationwide stay-at-home order, said he supports the approach that state and local governments have taken in Tennessee and most other states to try to control the spread of the coronavirus.

"I actually think our local and state leaders have been exemplary in how to handle this," Corker said after Gov. Bill Lee issued a statewide stay-at-home order last Thursday. "As new data have come in, they have made changes and even the city restrictions here in Chattanooga have still allowed essential businesses to continue to operate. Generally thinking, I think people have tried to balance the health care component, which is so important, and the actual employment component, which is going to be important over the mid-to-long term."

Corker said he began to talk with his former colleagues in the U.S. Senate and other world leaders in March when he saw commentators on CNBC and elsewhere suggesting a national lockdown of sorts to shut down activity and travel for an indefinite period to control the growing COVID-19 virus. Such a national action, Corker believes, could have seriously weakened the economy and undermined the ability of local and state governments to respond as needed in each area.

"I am gratified that the national conversation is moving into balance where the public policies in place to fight COVID-19 are being measured against the longer-term implications for the health of our society, which will likely include increased suicides, domestic violence, deprivation and lost opportunities," Corker said in a tweet last week. "I continue to pray for those afflicted by this virus and all those in public service who will be making what are likely the most important decisions of their careers as new data becomes available."

Gov. Bill Lee initially resisted calls last week from thousands of Tennessee physicians, including former Senate Majority Leader and heart surgeon Bill Frist, urging him to impose a statewide shelter-at-home order to limit business and travel activity to control the spread of COVID-19. Lee issued an executive order Thursday night to close state parks and limit non-essential business activity, although the state order is not as stringent as those in most of the state's biggest cities, including Chattanooga.

Lee conceded that making the right call isn't easy in the uncharted world ahead with differing forecasts on the impact of the virus on the health of both the state's residents and its economy.

"I've always believed that the best way to make decisions is with good information," Lee said during a Chattanooga visit last week. "But there is lot of guesswork in modeling and there is a lot of unknown about this particular virus."

In an interview with the Times Free Press, Corker said he opposes a uniform, federal policy for all parts of the United States, which are likely to be affected differently by the virus at different times.

"I do think this is a regional problem," he said.

Over the past 25 years, Bob Corker has served in top positions in state, local and federal governments as Tennessee's state finance director, Chattanooga's mayor and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. But the 67-year-old Republican politician began his career as a construction contractor building shopping centers across the South for Bencor Construction Co., where he said he gained an appreciation for those who work with their hands.

Blue-collar workers are usually unable to telework and are more apt to lose their jobs and income under stringent stay-at-home orders, Corker said. Better testing, social distancing and work practices may allow more workers to return to their jobs once the worst of the virus is over, he said.

"The quicker we can pivot from dealing with this health crisis to beginning to open back up more of our economy, the better our society is going to be to deal with our mid-to-long-run challenges," he said.

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6340.

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