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Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / Traffic on Gunbarrel Road is seen just after 2:00 p.m., in front of the Hamilton Place Mall entrance, on Sunday.

Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke is urging city residents to continue social distancing as data shows suburban areas are nearing pre-coronavirus traffic levels.

Data from traffic cameras across the city show that traffic in large suburban areas is returning to pre-coronavirus levels as businesses continue to reopen, indicating a decrease in social distancing among many Chattanoogans.

"I'm concerned about this, particularly with the numbers that we're seeing," Berke said on a call with reporters Friday, at the end of the two worst weeks of case growth in Hamilton County since the virus began. "If you look at what Centers for Disease Control recommendations are, if you go back and see what our Restart Task Force put together, it was all premised on the idea that you slowly loosen restrictions, and only do so as cases are able to either stay the same or go down. That's not our situation right now, and so I'll just say that we've got to really be diligent about this, particularly as things are opening up even more."

According to the city's data, daily traffic in each of eight monitored areas across the city — four suburban and four downtown — dropped by around 50% between mid-March and mid-April as the virus arrived in Chattanooga and in the city, and later the state, shut down certain gatherings and businesses to lessen the spread.

While daily averages in the downtown areas — 4th Street and Market Street, 4th Street and Chestnut Street, 4th Street and Georgia Avenue, and Market Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard — were still down by about 40%, with slight increases in early May as businesses have reopened, other areas are seeing much faster increases.

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Traffic nearing pre-COVID numbers

For example, the intersection of Shallowford and Gunbarrel roads in the Hamilton Place area averaged around 40,000 cars per day before the virus, dipping by around 40% to fewer than 25,000 cars per day from mid-March to mid-April, but since has spiked to about 39,000 per day in May. A similar pattern is reflected at the intersections of Interstate 75 and Ringgold Road in East Ridge, Lee Highway and Little Debbie Parkway in Ooltewah and the transition of McCallie Avenue into Bailey Avenue in Ridgedale.

"Our numbers show that the East Brainerd area is roughly back to where it was pre-COVID in terms of traffic, but our downtown is still down about 40%," Berke said. "I'm sure that is in large part because lots of business environments like City Hall, Unum and others are at either no or very low capacity. But this is something that we've got to continue to watch for."

But increased vehicle traffic doesn't necessarily reflect increased non-essential business traffic.

"Our inside foot traffic levels are definitely not back to where they were before COVID or year over year," Stacey Keating, director of public relations for CBL Properties, said of Hamilton Place mall. "We don't have a license plate counter so I don't know anything about exterior traffic, but inside we are not back to normal."

While CBL does not release its foot traffic data publicly, Keating said Hamilton Place is experiencing a significant decrease compared to this time last year and that the low numbers have been consistent since the mall was allowed to reopen on May 1.

Still, Berke, who had planned for a much slower reopening process in the city but was overruled by the state and county, gave the warning about social distancing on the day the state and county began allowing groups of 50 or more to congregate and at the start of Memorial Day weekend, one of the largest travel and social gathering holidays of the year.

"Even though many of the restrictions that we've seen [that] are binding on us have been loosened, we still have to obey the best recommendations from the CDC," the mayor said. "And so, [we still] can't gather around the grill, can't have everybody come over to your house and sit around the table together. That's not the way for us to keep ourselves, our families, our loved ones in our community safe."

Contact Sarah Grace Taylor at staylor@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6416. Follow her on Twitter @_sarahgtaylor.

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