When Gov. Bill Lee announced plans for a gradual reopening of Tennessee businesses to the public in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the reception was a mix of elation, concern and fear.
The plan, called “Tennessee Pledge,” allowed restaurants to open at half-capacity on April 27, and retail businesses at half-capacity on April 29.
According to the guidelines, all reopening businesses should screen all employees daily. Details on how this should be done are included in the document. Additionally, high-touch surfaces should be cleaned at least every two hours.
The pledge also states that employees should be allowed to work from home as much as possible.
The guidelines included the following:
• All employees should wear face coverings and gloves at all times, and those handling food should receive ServSafe COVID-19 training.
• Tables should be spaced 6 feet apart and seat no more than 6 guests each.
• Bar areas should be closed.
• There should be no live music.
• Customers should be screened for illness.
• Make hand sanitizer available to customers.
• Use disposable menus or sanitize after each use.
• Close self-serve buffets and condiment and beverage stations.
As with any plan to reopen in the middle of a pandemic that has claimed the lives of more than 88,000 Americans — including 280 Tennessee residents — many residents and business owners breathed a sigh of relief. The pandemic has taken thousands of lives, but also has wreaked absolute havoc on the local economy, sending thousands to the unemployment line and small businesses to the verge of bankruptcy. Why not, they reasoned, give reopening a shot? It might provide a slight shot in the arm to the state’s struggling economy and stave off worse financial damage.
But anticipation of a reopening was tempered with a sense of fear that throwing open the doors of the state, however gradual, would leave Tennessee open to a potential explosion of coronavirus cases and COVID-19 deaths. Any economic benefit, it was reasoned, would be offset by the possible collapse of our state’s health care system, a fallback to strict stay-at-home orders and a prolonged collapse of the state’s economy.
It’s been about two weeks since the state began its phased reopening, so how have we done?
Actually, not bad so far.
Since the first phase began, there has been a spike in confirmed coronavirus cases, enough of a rise that the Nashville area was labeled as one of the nation’s top 10 virus hot spots. While the spike in case numbers is difficult to directly link to reopening, the timing of the spike is enough to warrant some concern.
But in other areas of the state, particularly here in Blount County, the reopening has gone relatively smoothly. The number of positive coronavirus cases has remained relatively steady, while business owners, though still struggling, have begun to have a slight glimmer of hope that the worst is behind us.
That sense of hope and the relative stability of the case numbers is due to one simple fact: Blount Countians are taking personal responsibility to contain the spread of the virus.
All across the county you can see residents either wearing protective masks or keeping to the 6-feet social distancing guidelines. Blount County and city schools are making plans to hold graduation ceremonies and going to extraordinary lengths to see to the safety of graduates and their loved ones. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park has reported a smooth reopening with visitors observing safety guidelines while taking in the beauty that the park has to offer.
So far, so good. Now what?
As the Lee administration begins planning for the second phase of reopening the state, including Friday’s announcement to allow restaurants, retailers and movie theaters to open at full capacity (while encouraging social distancing guidelines) by May 22, we would advise against the temptation to throw the doors wide open, to declare that the virus is contained and get on with getting back to normal. The smart thing would be to, borrowing a phrase from the late President George H.W. Bush, stay the course.
There’s a scene in the campy science fiction movie “Starship Troopers” that we think applies appropriately. In the movie, the hero of the story is asked what he believed the duty of a citizen should be. The hero answers that a citizen makes the protection of the human race his personal responsibility.
We couldn’t agree more.
Personal responsibility — taking steps to protect yourself as well as your fellow Blount Countian — will be crucial as we move forward to our new normal, whatever that happens to be.