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Bringing Business Back, With Caveats

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Brandon Hollingsworth, WUOT News
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Tennessee is moving quickly toward re-opening businesses closed to slow the spread of COVID-19, as state and local committees work out how to minimize the risk of a surge in new cases caused by increased public activity.

Moves announced this week would, if successful, begin to restore a sense of familiarity absent since the middle of last month. But they also come with a strong word of caution for Tennesseans who want life to return to pre-COVID conditions overnight.

Governor Bill Lee launched the first salvo four days ago when he extended his “stay at home” order to April 30. In the same press conference, Lee indicated it was time to devise an approach to re-open closed businesses. He mentioned Friday, May 1, as a possible target date for the soft reset. The hint took off quickly, embraced by Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs among others. The day after Lee’s press conference, Jacobs drafted a proposal for businesses that want to re-open soon.

Thursday evening, Lee announced the formation of a public-private committee to advise businesses on the safest ways to resume activity. The group’s membership is drawn from state legislative leadership, the governor’s cabinet, and business groups. It will be led by Tourism Commissioner Mark Ezell.

“COVID-19 has not only created a public health crisis, it has hurt thousands of businesses and hundreds of thousands of hardworking Tennesseans,” Lee said. “As we work to safely open Tennessee’s economy, this group will provide guidance to industries across the state on the best ways to get Tennesseans back to work.”

Less than three hours before Lee’s statement, the mayors of Tennessee’s four largest cities announced the formation of their own task force, composed of seventeen business leaders and health care professionals. The group, according to a press release, will work with state leaders to come up with a coordinated economic recovery effort. With some political leaders growing antsy about re-opening stores, restaurants and bars, this metro task force is expected to get to work quickly. It is set to meet next week and present initial recommendations before the month is out.

Despite the fast-rising tide of optimism about a soft economic re-launch, Lee, Jacobs and Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon have couched their remarks this week with an important caveat: COVID-19 isn’t going anywhere, and any economic recovery plan has to take into account the presence and risk of the respiratory virus that has killed 141 Tennesseans.

“May 1 may prove to be too early, [and] if too early, then there will be a resurgence of cases,” Boyd Center economist Matt Murray said. “This could translate to another closure of the economy...but steps need to be made now, knowing there will be some missteps along the way.”

Knox County Health Department Director Martha Buchanan told reporters she supports re-opening businesses in phases, acknowledging there’s no playbook for this unique situation.

"We all want to reopen the economy," Buchanan said. "But we’re going to do that safely and we’re going to do that together. We will provide advice and we’ll have to wait for some of it."

One point of general agreement across the country is that widespread testing is needed to truly understand the scope of COVID-19 – far more data than currently on hand from limited testing conducted so far, mainly among people who already exhibited symptoms. The proportion of the population with COVID-19 and capable of transmitting it, but without major symptoms – referred to as asymptomatic cases – is unknown.

Accordingly, state and local officials are now trying to test many more Tennesseans. Gov. Lee announced a statewide effort with mobile clinics over the next couple of weeks. Thursday, the Knox County Health Department announced it would offer drive-through and stationary testing sites to all people, regardless of symptoms. The department also encouraged people to get tested through their usual primary care providers.

It is not clear whether there is a “right” formula for getting economic machinery working again. This week saw European countries roll out different strategies of their own creation. With many approaches, there are ample opportunities for economists, politicians and the public to see which ones succeed.

"The big question is ‘what works'? Social distancing seems to be working to flatten the curve, but what will keep it flat and declining -- or at least, prevent a significant uptick that stresses the system?" said Kathy Brown, of the University of Tennessee Department of Public Health. "I wish we had 'best practices' but they just don’t exist for the current situation."

Lifelines for unemployed food service, retail, hospitality and “gig” workers are not guaranteed. The proposal put forth by Jacobs this week says restaurants and bars should operate at limited capacity and stores could re-open with reduced hours. That means they may not need to fully re-staff for the time being.

Another major question mark is whether, absent a vaccine or widely-available effective treatment for COVID-19, consumers are willing to jump back into their old shopping, travel and dining habits immediately.

“It’s not like you’re going to throw the doors open and everybody’s going to run out and start kissing and hugging, like in [a] movie,” business journalist Molly Wood said in a recent edition of the podcast Make Me Smart. “Human behavior is going to be such a major driver of this…no person is going to be like, ‘Super! I’m going to head out to see the new James Bond movie.’”

This story was edited at 3:44 p.m. EDT to include comments from Dr. Kathy Brown of the UT Department of Public Health.