This story was updated at 5:58 p.m. on Thursday, March 19, 2020, with more information.
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Chattanooga's mayor wants to end dining in restaurants, drinking in bars and going to the gym to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the city, but doesn't want to permanently impact businesses in the process.
Mayor Andy Berke signed an executive order Thursday morning mandating that all restaurants and bars in the city end dine-in services to protect against the spread of the virus.
Berke also ordered that all gyms in the city close effective Thursday to promote social distancing.
"My thoughts are with the many bartenders, servers, cooks, janitors, and other hourly wage workers who rely on these jobs to make ends meet. These are among the hardest working people in our city and also most impacted by everything that's going on," Berke tweeted Thursday morning. "Our office will do everything we can to connect our small business owners and workers with resources to help get them through this difficult time."
According to Berke, this is "the last thing" he wanted to do to the business community, but he has to look out for the interests of public health in order to minimize the spread and long-term impact of the virus, which has spread to at least three people in the local community so far.
But, due to the severity of the threat, the mayor has given the Chattanooga Police Department, fire marshal and building officials the authority to close any businesses operating outside of these parameters.
"The goal is not to stop these businesses from operating, it's to make sure they're operating in the safest possible way," he said Thursday. "My goal is to return to a more normal process as possible with as few people getting sick as we can."
Berke said many such businesses had already closed or adjusted their services in recent days due to federal and local health guidance, and other restaurateurs he spoke to seemed to understand the decision.
But the mayor is still feeling the weight of his decision.
"I'm in my house while I'm talking to you. I'm pacing. I'm really upset," the mayor told reporters on a phone call about the order. "That's why we're on the phone."
Berke, who said he eats out pretty much every day, says it is "extremely troubling" to think about what's happening in the lives of people living paycheck to paycheck.
With that in mind, Berke said, his office is considering how to use local funds from the industrial development board neighborhood reinvestment fund to help businesses weather the financial impact of the virus.
"In the forthcoming months, the issue is not going to be capital, it's going to be operating expenses," Berke said, suggesting he would use money usually reserved for business growth to help with more immediate expenses of businesses trying to reopen or stay afloat after the pandemic dies down.
"In addition, we have to leverage every federal fund out there," he said.
Berke said the amount of money being looked at is not enough to make a large difference in the local business world, but could help subsidize available federal and state funds.
Still, Berke said he shares in the concerns of his constituents worried about the coronavirus' long-term impact on businesses in Chattanooga.
"I understand where they're coming from, and I'm scared as well," Berke said, adding that the virus has not been handled well across the U.S. "We are behind the curve in responding, and that needs to change immediately."
The executive order was made after the county made an unenforceable recommendation for restaurants to switch to delivery, drive-through or carry-out-only service on Wednesday, which County Mayor Jim Coppinger said was a sufficient action as he trusts people to do the right thing.
Contact Sarah Grace Taylor at email@example.com or 423-757-6416. Follow her on Twitter @_sarahgtaylor.