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Gov. Lee announces plan to reopen economy

Including new guidelines for restaurants, retailers

By Jill Penley
Freelance Writer

The first case of COVID-19 was announced in Tennessee on March 5. Almost two months later, there are well over 8,000 cases in the state, and nearly 200 deaths and a large majority of residents have adhered to Gov Bill Lee’s “Safer at Home” order, issued April 2, which aimed to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, or Coronavirus, a fast-spreading virus that originated in Wuhan, China, but has since become a worldwide pandemic.

When can we safely emerge from our homes? When will businesses be allowed to open to the public? What about restaurants and salons? Tennessee Gov Bill Lee announced the “Tennessee Pledge” at his daily briefing Friday, which includes guidelines for the reopening of restaurants and retail stores in 89 of Tennessee’s 95 counties.

Under the state’s plan, restaurants are also asked to require employees to wear gloves and masks, use disposable menus, have a maximum of 6 people per table, in addition to limiting overall occupancy to 50 percent capacity. Live music is prohibited, with bar areas remaining closed. Restaurants are also asked to clean all front-of-house surfaces every two hours and halt any buffets, shared condiments, or beverage stations. The plan also encourages restaurants to screen customers with “basic questions” about COVID-19 symptoms.

In terms of retail businesses, the state’s plan similarly calls for employees to wear masks and gloves while limiting store capacity to 50 percent. The plan makes a host of recommendations that could change the way Tennesseans shop, including suggesting businesses: create one-way aisles and traffic patterns for social distancing; prohibit reusable bags; dedicate certain operating hours for elderly, medically vulnerable and health care workers; designated separate entrance and exits; use plastic shields or barriers at checkout counters; adjust store hours for cleaning; and halt sampling of food and personal hygiene products.

The reopening, however, does not apply to Davidson, Shelby, Madison, Hamilton, Knox, and Sullivan counties, which operate their own health departments, where local authorities are determining their own reopening plans.Other close contact services, such as barbershops, massage, and tattoo parlors, will remain closed until additional guidelines are issued and protective gear secured.

“I think we will be fine getting things back to normal if we stay smart and wash our hands more often,” said Mountain City Mayor Kevin Parsons. “With dining rooms in restaurants closed along with other non-essential businesses being shut down, it has to affect our economy and will also have consequences to our local government funding as sales tax revenue is a big part of our budget.”

While some are praising Gov. Lee’s decision, others disagree and feel that it is too early and dangerous. 

“I want Tennesseans to know that we want our economy to open up in a slow, measured, best approach,” said Gov. Lee during the release of the “Tennessee Pledge.”

“I have mixed feelings,” said Janet Brooks. “It’s out there, and we need to be cautious, and I do not want anyone to get it, but I think I am more afraid of what we are facing if we don’t get the economy back up and going.” Another Johnson County resident.  

Christion Walsh agrees. “I think if you are healthy and have strong immunity, then resume. If you are high risk, definitely be more cautious.”

Others, like Brittany Dorman, think Tennessee is rushing back. “I feel that it is too early,” said Dorman, “and we will see a severe second wave.”

Sherry Potter says it depends on where you are. “There are no active cases here and haven’t been for some time,” she said, “so I don’t see why they shouldn’t open. With that said, everyone should make their own choice about what they’re comfortable with, no judgment from others.”

While there are many opinions of whether Tennessee, and other states, are taking the correct approach to re-opening, there are also varying opinions, and sometimes conflicting information, being dispensed by medical experts adding to the uncertainty and ambivalence permeating Johnson County.