As local leaders divide on when and how to safely "reopen" Chattanooga and the surrounding area after weeks of business closures and other restrictions to curb the spread of COVID-19, residents and business owners fear the effects of inconsistent governance.
Ron and Marti Brown of Chattanooga have owned and operated Town and Country Barber Shop since the early 1990s, but fear their livelihood being threatened by nearby competition as the city maintains business closures while the state, county and many local municipalities are clearing businesses to reopen on May 1.
"Mayor [Andy] Berke is preventing our people in this city from going to work, which is what built this city," Ron Brown told the Times Free Press on Wednesday. "I don't know what the reason is behind the city acting so differently is, but we are at the end of how long we can stay closed."
As threats of the virus grew in March, the Browns closed up shop days before Berke required all businesses like theirs to do so, in order to do cleaning and restructuring to promote social distancing and safety. Now, over four weeks later, they have gone a month without income themselves, and are worried about the long-term effects on their business.
"Our clients and employees are begging to come back. They know us well enough to know that we would not take the risk for ourselves, nor would we for them, and that our shop is safe. I don't want anyone getting sick on my watch," Marti Brown said, adding that she fears with the county and both Tennessee and Georgia set to reopen, Chattanooga businesses will lose to the competition. "I hope our business will make it out OK, if we're allowed to reopen soon, but our employees that don't have the experience and established clientele that we do might go somewhere else to work if their clients start going to Hixson or Georgia or wherever to get their haircuts.
"I just don't get how they're all looking at the same data and yet [Berke] can't be on the same page for his citizens," she added.
Berke said Monday, just hours after Gov. Bill Lee announced his plan for Tennessee to reopen gradually between now and May 1, that he will not set an "arbitrary" reopening date, but would rather wait until more significant community testing is complete and then make a decision off of that data.
"First, I want them to be back in business also. Second, I would tell them that reopening too soon without the right data creates a potential public health risk for the owners and their customers, and we need him to succeed. Employers have stressed to me that it would be back-breaking for them to open, only to see COVID cases rise in a way that would result in another round of closures," Berke wrote in an email to the Times Free Press Wednesday. "Third, I am committed to making the best decision I can to protect the health of our residents while restarting our economy, and that is my responsibility, no matter what the area around us is doing."
He added that data on new cases, hospitalizations, local testing, contact tracing and transmission rates will dictate when the city lifts restrictions.
"Public health officials guide me on how we should analyze reopenings," he wrote. "I need to know that we can manage the positive cases in our community as we reopen in a way that protects the health of our residents and our economy."
On the other hand, County Mayor Jim Coppinger, along with seven of the county's 10 municipalities, says he trusts the governor's decision.
"We're still in communication with the governor's office and in the beginning there will be a lot of similarities with what they're doing," Coppinger told the Times Free Press Wednesday. "Again, this is going to be a gradual thing, but it's going to be done with a lot of cautions and a lot of monitoring things as we go forward."
While new cases of the virus and hospitalizations have slowed in the last two weeks, Coppinger recognizes the risk of reopening.
"Look, there's not going to be a perfect time to reopen until there's a vaccine, and there's no way we can just shut completely down for that long," Coppinger said. "We need to find safe ways to get back to normal, or whatever will become normal, and that's what we're trying to do."
He explained that in "monitoring things,"the county will put special emphasis on the number of hospitalizations, not just cases, from the illness.
"We're still going to have cases, and as long as there's not a real outbreak of number of cases, we're going to focus on hospitalizations," he said. "Like if otherwise healthy people start catching it and ending up in the hospital or dying without any underlying conditions, which we do know has happened, but not locally, then we will obviously reconsider our response."
Coppinger said he is optimistic, as he has personally seen a lot more people wearing masks and keeping distance while in public.
"People are a lot more aware and a lot more educated on how to protect themselves," he added. "We trust the guidance of the governor's [Economic Recovery Group] and we trust our citizens to keep doing the right thing."
Most importantly, Coppinger said, he recognizes the need for some kind of normalcy.
"We've got two fronts that we're fighting with the COVID; we have the illness and the economic impact," Coppinger said. "People like to say you can't put a price on lives or illness, and I 100% agree, but if you look at the data, we're positioned well enough that if we put in the right restrictions for each industry, we can allow people to get back to work."
On Tuesday, Berke told CNN that the county, state and city being on different pages was "really difficult and confusing" for the community, but he wants to focus on "data not dates" and do what is right for Chattanooga.
"The most important thing we can do to reopen the economy is to make sure people are safe. To keep people safe, we should listen to experts, filter their guidance through the lens of what local business people can tell us, and create clear guidelines for businesses and their customers," Berke added Wednesday. "I believe that transparency about what we are doing and why we are doing it, alongside the validation of public health professionals, will build public confidence and increase the speed in which businesses can return to profitability. It is not enough to say businesses can open; we need to ensure the environment exists where they can succeed."
"Going forward, hopefully we can all work together, all of us, throughout all of the state and certainly in the region, to offer consistent guidance and do what's best to keep our people safe, healthy and employed," Coppinger said in response to Berke's comments. "We're all trying to do what's best."
Contact Sarah Grace Taylor at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6416. Follow her on Twitter @_sarahgtaylor.