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Tennessee won’t enforce new reopening guidelines

by Kimberlee Kruesi and Jonathan Mattise —

Gov. Bill Lee on Friday released more details about how restaurants and retail stores across most of Tennessee should reopen next week to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, while acknowledging the state will not enforce such measures to ensure implementation.

The Republican governor argued that businesses and consumers will be in charge of ensuring that the state’s new recommendations, dubbed the “Tennessee pledge,” are practiced.

“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 told reporters.

Tennessee unveiled the new guidelines the same day as some businesses began slowly reopening in Georgia. Yet several public health experts have warned that reopening a state too soon could result in a new surge in coronavirus infections.
Gov. Bill Lee during an earlier COVID-19 update visit to Memphis. (Photo: Screen capture)

Lee, who was in Memphis today (April 25) to observe Christ Community Health Services COVID 19 testing in Frayser, has defended reopening large parts of the state’s economy by arguing that Tennessee has seen a steady decline in the growth rate of new cases, as well as stressing the importance of helping the thousands of Tennesseans who have lost their job due to COVID-19.

The reopening plan applies to 89 out of the state’s 95 counties. It does not apply to Tennessee’s largest cities, including Nashville, Memphis, Knoxville and Chattanooga, leaving that decision to metro leaders — who have all held off from promising to reopen by any particular date.

“As far as the state goes, you kind of have to ask them what they’re looking at because if you look at the overall state numbers they’re climbing,” said Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke, who said his city would not be reopening Monday. “Most of what we’ve been seeing is that public health experts want to see consistent decline before you alter your regime and get more people together.”

Berke said being nestled along the Tennessee-Georgia border has created confusion for many residents trying to figure out what restrictions apply to them.

“We know what happens in one place effects the other,” he said. “So as Georgia has even more openings than in Tennessee and Tennessee has more openings than Chattanooga, it creates a lot of confusion for people and a lot of concern.”

Meanwhile, Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris on Friday extended a stay-at-home order until April 30. It applies to residents who live outside the city of Memphis but live in suburban municipalities such as Collierville and Germantown. Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland this week extended the city’s order until May 5.

Both mayors in Tennessee’s largest county have said gradual steps to ease restrictions on businesses and other aspects of daily life will likely be taken after those orders expire.

Shelby County has reported 1,981 cases and 43 deaths. County health department epidemiologist David Sweat said cases have increased this week at a daily rate of about 35-50 cases, indicating the reported number of new cases may have plateaued on a day-to-day basis.

“That is good news,” Sweat said.

Local leaders in Knoxville say business won’t reopen until at least May 1.

According to Lee’s guidelines, restaurants in most of the state may reopen dine-in service Monday and retail stores may reopen in-person shopping Wednesday. Further guidance for gyms, salons, barbershops and other close-contact shops will be handed down next week, Lee said, but those businesses will likely reopen later in May.

Both restaurants and stores are urged to keep capacity at 50 percent. Employees are told to wear cloth masks and gloves.

The state also suggests that restaurants should sanitize contact surfaces every two hours, avoid self-serve buffets and limit seating to six people per table. Live music is also discouraged.

“We believe the Tennessee Pledge will allow us a mechanism for businesses to rally around providing a safe environment for their workers,” Department of Tourist Development Mark Ezell said.

For retailers, the state asks businesses to encourage customers to wear masks, implement one-way aisles and increase curbside services.

“Only by working together as a community of volunteers can we successfully reboot our economy, a vital component of our lives, our security, our liberty, and successfully move through this public health crisis,” Lee said.

Tennessee had more than 8,700 confirmed cases of COVID-19 as of Thursday, a jump in more than 460 positive cases from the day before. At least 168 residents have died.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms that clear up within weeks. For some, especially older adults and those with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness and be life-threatening.

(Adrian Sainz contributed to this report from Memphis, Tennessee. Follow AP coverage of the pandemic at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak)

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