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Regional Mayors Say Re-Opening Plans Coming Soon

Mike Donila, Knox County Government

The leaders of East Tennessee cities and counties say they will unveil formal plans for getting economic activity going in coming days. The phased approach may begin as early as next week and ramp up through May.

Standing several feet apart, the mayors of seven Tennessee counties, Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon, and Farragut Mayor Ron Williams gave a general sketch of regional thinking as the Knoxville metro area prepares to slowly re-enter economic activity.

County mayors were “delighted” to hear of Gov. Bill Lee’s intention to let a statewide “safer at home” order expire on April 30, Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs said. “We believe this is a great first step for getting our economy back online and getting East Tennesseans back to work.”

Jacobs has consistently expressed his concern that efforts to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus have caused too much economic damage. 65,588 people in the sixteen-county area that includes Knoxville and surrounding communities filed for unemployment benefits between March 13 and April 18, according to state data. As people cancelled travel plans, nixed their usual entertainment and weekend plans, and avoided public places, tax revenues have dropped off significantly at city, county and state levels.

Health experts have said mandatory closures and stay-home orders were necessary steps to limit the human damage inflicted by a virus never before encountered, and for which there is no cure and no vaccine.

Anderson County Mayor Terry Frank noted Jacobs has been a key player in multi-county talks over the last couple weeks that shared information and discussed challenges on the regional level.

“This kind of cooperation leads to regional success,” said Frank, adding the most recent trends on new COVID cases in her county were encouraging.

All the mayors who spoke expressed some variation on the same themes: praise for Gov. Bill Lee for lifting the “safer at home” order, getting local businesses re-opened, and broad optimism tempered by some recognition of the potential dangers of COVID-19 that still exist.

“We don’t want to undo all the progress we’ve made under the ‘safer at home’ orders or invite restrictions back on our citizens,” Blount County Mayor Ed Mitchell said. But he stressed that the local economy needed to resume activity, even if in a limited fashion. Tourism, a particularly hard-hit sector of the economy, is an important chunk of Blount County’s revenue each year. Tourism employed 3,650 people in Blount County and generated $408 million in 2018, according to a state report.

That point was emphasized by another county mayor who knows the crucial role of tourism in local economy – Larry Waters of Sevier County. Sevier typically leads the state in tourism revenue, driven by businesses in Sevierville, Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg that have been idled during the “safer at home” period. Even with the eagerness to re-open, Waters said it will not be business as usual next month. He mentioned reduced seating at restaurants and other measures businesses plan to implement to maintain physical distancing and disinfecting practices.

“Some hotel/motel…desk clerks are going wear masks, they’re going to clean the rooms in a special way…and businesses know those kind of steps are going to make a difference about people feeling safe to come back,” Waters said. “It will be a gradual, progressive opening that we’re going to monitor and try to address in as safe a manner as possible.”

All the officials that spoke at the Wednesday morning press conference agreed the success of any re-opening plan will hinge on a key element they can’t control: individual behavior, including physical distancing, wearing a facial mask, thorough hand-washing and staying home as much as possible. An attempt to resume normal social activity and travel too soon, medical experts have warned, could lead to a rise in new cases.

“We’re under no illusions about COVID-19,” Jacobs said. “It’s here for the foreseeable future. We encourage everyone to adhere to the health guidelines.”