Herrington: Lee’s decision is no green light; now we all live in the flashing yellow

By , Daily Memphian Updated: April 21, 2020 9:31 PM CT | Published: April 21, 2020 10:33 AM CT
Chris Herrington
Daily Memphian

Chris Herrington

Chris Herrington covers the Memphis Grizzlies and writes about Memphis culture, food, and civic life. He lives in the Vollintine-Evergreen neighborhood of Midtown with his wife, two kids, and two dogs.

Let’s start here: Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee’s decision on Monday not to renew his statewide “safer at home” order, letting it expire at the end of April and reopening the doors for many businesses on May 1, seems both arbitrary and premature. 

Gov. Lee: Reopening will be phased, smart, strategic

The decision comes days after the introduction of federal guidelines for reopening that the state doesn’t currently meet: Fourteen days of COVID case decline? Robust testing, contact tracing, antibody testing? May 1 is 11 days from Lee’s announcement. Perhaps he’s betting on hope that the state will be closer to the mark by then. 

It comes days after researchers at Harvard – in conclusions echoed publicly by Dr. Anthony Fauci, the White House’s top infectious disease expert – suggested that the country needs to boost its testing by three times the current rate over the next month before reopening. (They do show Tennessee ahead of most states in testing relative to population, though still well behind the target.) 

It comes before what every model and every public official has said would be the state’s peak. 

Small Memphis protest mirrors state, national unrest over COVID restrictions

So why do it now? We’ll hope political pressure – from above or below – wasn’t the driving concern. Three different national polls over the past week have shown solid to significant majorities for staying the course on “stay at home” measures for now. On Sunday, I walked by the “Free Tennessee” rally at City Hall and kept on walking: If the demonstrators had decided to play a game of touch football against the media there to document them, the media would have had to sit a couple of people to keep the sides even. 

Rather, we’ll assume it’s some combination of impatience, fatigue and reaction to economic turmoil, the latter of which should not be dismissed by those not (yet) feeling it as acutely as others. 

At the outset of the pandemic, “public health vs. economy” was a false choice. The virus shut down the economy before governments did, and without effectively controlling the virus, “reopening” will be no such thing. But these questions grow more complicated with each passing day. 

Impatience was always going to be part of this matrix: There’s a natural urge to get past bad situations without fully dealing with them. To declare things simply over. But a governmental failure has fed this impatience, and it didn’t come from Nashville.

Remember, the idea of nationwide social distancing wasn’t just to wait things out. It wasn’t a sentence to be served, but an active effort. And while most of the country did its part by doing less, the federal government had two primary jobs: To pay for the pause via financial support – not stimulus – that would keep the economy from cratering, and to respond medically in the process, creating the material conditions to safely lift our fingers from the pause button.

A month in, consider these efforts insufficient: The legislative branch has been a day late and a dollar short with assistance, and the executive branch, playing catch-up from the start, still lags behind.

To paraphrase a great Tennessean: We tried and they failed us and now we feel like leaving home? 

It was less than a month that feels like a lifetime ago in this space that I cited a piece from a right-leaning foundation calling for a “hard pause” to the economy followed by a “soft start,” a “careful and gradual return to normalcy.”

That “pause” has likely not been hard enough, but the greater concern now is that the “start” will be too swift.

“It will be phased. It will be smart. It will be strategic,” said Lee about his bid to re-start the state’s economy. And if the pause has ended prematurely, let’s hope the return is handled with sufficient care. 

Give Lee credit here: Unlike his more rash peer across the Tennessee-Georgia line, he had the good sense, and comparative humility, to exempt his major metro areas – roughly 40% of the state’s population – from his action. Mayors from Memphis, Nashville, Chattanooga and Knoxville are likely now scrambling to formulate their own revised policies before the state’s new normal takes effect. Let’s hope Lee’s example doesn’t pressure them into actions that they wouldn’t have otherwise taken. Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke was quick to say on Monday he would not commit to an arbitrary date to alter restrictions in his city. We’ll hope for – and expect – the same locally. 

And that’s perhaps the greatest threat from Lee’s decision: That people eager for an impossible return to pre-COVID norms don’t hear “phased” and “strategic.” That they see the green light they want to see instead of realizing that our lives will exist amid flashing yellows for the foreseeable future. 

In that way, talking of “opening” and “closing” is a misnomer. Tennessee never really closed and it can’t fully reopen. Our future path will be complicated, contingent, gradual and if we aren’t careful – and maybe even if we are – fitful. And this battery of decisions doesn’t just come from governors and mayors and public health officials, but from individual businesses and individual people.

“Reopening” into an economy that still won’t be functioning presents dangers. Flare-ups and retrenchments. It risks complicating the ability of businesses and individuals to get assistance or to contain/delay costs without actually offsetting those complications by bringing back, you know, business. 

With hospitals running well below capacity and health-care workers at some being furloughed, maybe it makes sense to relax the pause on elective surgeries? With weather improving and large gatherings still a potential virus accelerant, maybe it makes sense to keep current restrictions on parks indefinitely? 

Maybe our testing has to move beyond the symptomatic who seek it out and be more targeted toward industries and sectors we’re trying to ramp back up? (This recent Atlantic piece makes a persuasive case that we’re not only testing too few people, but the wrong ones.)

Dr. Jon McCullers, associate dean of the College of Medicine at University of Tennessee Health Science Center and chief pediatrician at Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital, is talking about the kind of vast but targeted testing in Memphis we need to ramp up our economy … starting in June.

It would be more reassuring if Gov. Lee had extended the state’s “safe at home” order for a couple more weeks while embarking on some more targeted loosening. Too many will now likely see his move as the firing of a starter’s pistol. But Memphis and Shelby County leaders still have that different route available to them.

Leaders in other places have gotten blowback for this kind of micro-targeting, but “phased” and “strategic” demands it. Most of us know that in Memphis a yellow light is taken to mean “speed up.” In this instance we need to heed the yellows: Go slow.

Editor’s Note: The Daily Memphian is making our coronavirus coverage accessible to all readers — no subscription needed. Our journalists continue to work around the clock to provide you with the extensive coverage you need; if you can subscribe, please do

COVID-19 in Memphis and Shelby County: April


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