While Hamilton County faces an unprecedented surge in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, some of the most aggressive strategies to stop the spread appear dead on arrival in terms of implementation. At the same time, local business owners worry any further restrictions without assistance could mean the end of their livelihoods.
In its latest weekly report, the White House COVID-19 Task Force recommends that Tennessee limit restaurant indoor capacity to less than 50% and restrict hours until cases and the percent positive of new tests decreases.
Meanwhile, a study published Tuesday in the journal Nature found that a majority of infections were coming from a small group of places and restricting the occupancy levels at these types of establishments would work better to slow the spread of COVID-19 than a widespread shutdown order.
The researchers used hourly cell phone data of 98 million Americans from the 10 largest cities in the United States and compared it with maps of COVID-19 spread to create simulations about how reopening plans would affect spread of the virus.
The study found "points of interest" like restaurants, gyms, religious organizations and hotels caused the largest increases in infections when reopened compared to other non-residential points of interest. In fact, the virus spread so unevenly that the model showed about 85% of all infections were driven by 10% of those establishments.
In one simulation of Chicago, the researchers found that placing a 20% cap on occupancy would reduce new infections by 80% while causing a 42% decrease in overall visits. The study reported similar trends in simulations of other major cities.
After banning gatherings of more than 10 people and restricting restaurants to takeout service in March, Gov. Bill Lee allowed restaurants to open to 50% capacity at the end of April. The governor lifted those restrictions in mid-May as long as restaurants kept 6 feet of distance between tables. Hamilton County remains under a mask mandate, though no such restriction has been implemented at the state level.
Jim Coppinger, Hamilton County mayor, said there are no plans to reinstate restrictions on gyms, restaurants or other businesses given the current countywide mask mandate.
"A lot of businesses really got hurt. You know 92 or 93% of businesses in Hamilton County are small businesses, and a lot of them got hurt, some even went out of business in a very restrictive environment we had in late March and early April," Coppinger said. "And I have no intention of moving backward."
Coppinger said that while he's "disappointed" to see case numbers growing after weeks of progress following the initial mask mandate, businesses and people in public places are largely being compliant. The county mayor, like local health officials, pointed to small, private gatherings as being key to the recent spike.
"A lot of people are having COVID fatigue and are letting their guard down in these small gatherings and on holidays," he said, attributing much of the recent spike to people hosting private events or groups of friends and family. "And those people are responding or being careful. But if they're going to invite people over to watch the football game or whatever, that's not something we're going to try and enforce."
Armando Castro, co-owner of Taconooga, said his restaurant is doing just enough business to pay the bills. The restaurant is operating around eight of its 12 tables to allow spacing, and there is a cleaning routine between guests.
"Right now we are not making any profit at all," Castro said. "We are just keeping it open to keep people working and pay the bills and keep the restaurant going."
Taconooga was closed for weeks in the spring. Castro said he and his wife were too late to apply for federal aid but did receive some local grants. The money did not last long. Being a small business, the couple had little extra money to give to the business or its employees.
The restaurant really cannot scale back its operation without outside support from the local or federal government, Castro said.
"This is getting worse and worse," he said. "I've been seeing the cases increasing, and I think they're going to shut it down again, the city. They are going to do something about it. But they have to give the businesses, the small businesses, a little bit of money. I don't see any other way to do it."
Businesses like restaurants have been particularly hard hit during the pandemic, with many local establishments struggling to adapt to new guidelines or survive with limitations on occupancy. Earlier this month, Beast + Barrel announced it was closing after six years.
Yet, there is little indication Congress will pass another round of coronavirus relief while the pandemic shows no sign of slowing. Local records for daily new cases, confirmed hospitalizations, active cases and positivity rate for new tests were all broken multiple times this week as Hamilton County enters the worst outbreak of the coronavirus to date.
An online risk assessment model developed by researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology estimates that in Hamilton County there's an approximately 20% chance that at least one COVID-19 positive individual is present if a group of 10 people gather. That chance increases to 42% in a group of 25 people and 66% in a group of 50 people. However, those likelihoods are likely greater given the model was based on data from just before the most recent spike in cases.
Cara Standifer, chief marketing officer for YMCA of Metropolitan Chattanooga, said gym members are coming back to the facility slowly. Attendance for group classes is capped and members have to sign up ahead of time, Standifer said. Equipment like weight machines and treadmills are spread out or sectioned off to provide more distance between users, too.
If they were forced to scale back operations, Standifer said, the YMCA would look at all options before making any staff cuts. A lot is uncertain, and things are always under review, she said.
"We are week by week assessing how things are going at each location," Standifer said. "We are fully aware that we may have to rein back in and reduce capacity. ... We know that everything is subject to change at this point. Nothing is final. We realize we are not done with this at all."
Staff writer Sarah Grace Taylor contributed to this report.
Contact Wyatt Massey at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @news4mass.