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Phase One: Easing Into a New Economic and Social Reality

Brandon Hollingsworth, WUOT News

At the end of this week, Knoxville and Knox County businesses and churches shuttered under “safer at home” orders will begin to reopen in earnest. But life, local leaders stressed, will not be like it was before.

In the initial stage of a three-phase plan, restaurants and retail stores will host fewer people than normal, and increase distances between their customers. People are encouraged to wear fabric facial masks, avoid gathering in groups of more than ten, skip non-essential travel and stay home when they are sick. Telework policies and accommodations for people considered especially vulnerable to COVID-19 are recommended for employers.

Also under phase one, movie theaters, barbershops and salons, and gyms can re-open, but they are expected to adhere to strict physical distancing guidelines and cleaning practices. Barbershops and salons will be open by appointment only to limit crowding. Bars and sports venues will remain closed.

Knox County Health Department Director Martha Buchanan, Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon and Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs announced the plan in a joint appearance at the City-County Building Monday morning. Each phase is expected to last a minimum of 28 days, taking Knoxville and Knox County through July. But Buchanan said the timeline and specific allowances of each phase may be adjusted based on patterns of new COVID cases. A rise in new cases is expected.

The county health department says a business support team will be ready by Friday. That team will advise businesses on best practices and answer questions related to safely operating in the “new normal.”

Jacobs and Kincannon have often been at odds over the scope and duration of government orders that have severely curtailed economic activity. The mayors’ difference of opinion even extended to the press release last week that announced their joint appearance: Kincannon thanked health experts for their advice in helping draft a re-opening strategy; Jacobs confessed disappointment that businesses weren’t opening sooner.

But at the Monday press session, both mayors showed a unified attitude toward the re-opening plan.

“The city and the county worked on [the plan]…Mayor Kincannon and I both have something in common, and that’s, we are very concerned about the health of Knox Countians, and we want to ensure that as much as we possibly can. At the same time, we both realize that we can’t remain shuttered, and we have to start moving in the direction of opening things up,” Jacobs said.

“We’re on the same page,” Kincannon said. “I applaud Mayor Jacobs for working together with the city and I know that both the city and the county mayors stand behind Dr. Buchanan and will do everything in our power to support the efforts to keep our community safe, and to help our economy re-open in a safe way.”

The guidance does not apply to hospitals, clinics, dental offices and other medical facilities. They are instructed to follow federal guidelines and the rules of their respective professional groups. Nor does it apply to the University of Tennessee, which has established its own task force aimed at getting students, faculty and staff back on campus later this year.

Eighty-nine of Tennessee’s 95 counties are covered under statewide guidelines that went into effect today. Restaurants can open today at 50 percent capacity; retailers may re-open Wednesday at 50 percent capacity. Specific guidelines encourage retailers and restaurants to check their employees and customers for common COVID symptoms, allow clerks to wear masks and other protective gear, stagger work schedules, and prohibit congregating in break rooms as part of the effort to minimize the spread of COVID-19. But Gov. Bill Lee said Friday the state would not enforce the guidelines.

“We think that the consumers will enforce them, the business community itself will enforce them, the industry groups that have influence and impact and developed guidelines for industries, that’s how this is going to be enforced,” Lee said.

Lee said current economic forecasts show the best-scenario of is a $5 billion blow to the state’s economy from COVID-related closures.

Dr. Aaron Millstone, a Nashville pulmonologist, questioned the governor’s decision to soft-launch economic activity so soon. Millstone was among a group of medical professionals that lobbied the Lee administration to issue a safer-at-home order in March.

“We want to see things get back to normal as much as you do,” Millstone said in a statement. “But we cannot address the economic crisis without first solving the health crisis that created it.”

Millstone said re-opening needs to wait until COVID testing is more readily available and routine; rapid contact tracing can be done; and adequate PPE supplies are available for health care providers in case a new surge of virus cases develops.

Gov. Lee echoed the concern about undoing the success of physical distancing and public awareness in Tennessee.

“We must stay vigilant as a state, continue to practice social distancing, and engage in best practices at our businesses so that we can stay open,” the governor said Friday.