Tennessee to reopen restaurants and retail stores with $5B loss in GDP projected

By , Daily Memphian Updated: April 25, 2020 8:44 AM CT | Published: April 24, 2020 12:02 PM CT

Facing a possible $5 billion loss in gross domestic product from the COVID-19 crisis, Tennessee will open restaurants Monday, April 27, in 89 counties, even before lifting a “safer at home” order.

The move, being called “Tennessee Pledge,” comes for sit-down eating early next week and retail stores Wednesday, April 29, as those industries cope with $870 million in lost sales. Some 413,000 Tennesseans have filed unemployment claims since March 1, about 15% of the state’s workforce.

Restaurants in rural and suburban counties, not including Shelby, Davidson and other urban counties, can open at 50% capacity with tables spaced 6 feet apart and a limit of six people per table with social distancing standards in waiting areas.

Safer at Home orders in Memphis, Shelby County and its suburban cities remain in place for now. 

Tennessee’s data for rolling back the “safer at home” order doesn’t mesh with the White House’s guidelines for 14 straight days of COVID case declines.

Instead, the state says the daily growth rate has been stable over 14 days, in the 5% range, and that it has seen a downward trajectory of positive tests as a percentage of total tests since April 1. Still, the state added 460 cases Friday, the most since it started counting.

Democratic state Sen. Jeff Yarbro of Nashville questioned the wisdom of reopening, especially with the number of cases escalating.

“For Tennessee, this is the highest one-day increase in new cases, the highest numbers of both active cases and hospitalizations so far, and an increase in nursing home cases from 375 to 478 in two days,” Yarbro said on Twitter. “But based on this data, Tennessee says Applebee’s can open in 72 hours???”

Gov. Bill Lee said the state doesn’t plan to enforce the guidelines, either, and he noted consumers and businesses will be expected to handle enforcement.

“Socially distancing works, and it absolutely must continue if we’re going to reopen our economy safely,” Lee said.

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If a surge of COVID-19 cases is detected in any part of Tennessee, the state will determine whether restrictions need to be put in place again, Lee said.

Restaurant employees will wear face coverings and gloves and report any symptoms of illnesses to supervisors and follow daily sanitation protocols.

For a state accustomed to honky-tonks and blues, it won’t be a musical reopening. The state is also discouraging out-of-staters from going to tourist destinations.

“We are not returning to business as usually,” said Tourism Commissioner Mark Ezell, who is heading the governor’s Economic Recovery Group.

Bar areas will remain closed, and no live music will be allowed. In addition, customers will be screened with basic questions about COVID-19 symptoms.

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Menus will be disposable or sanitized between use, and restaurants will have to use rolled silverware/napkins stored in sealed bins.

Chairs and tabletops will have to be sanitized after use, and self-serve buffets, shared condiments and beverage station re-use will not be allowed. Anyone handling food will have to be trained for COVID-19 service safety.

Retails stores that open Wednesday will have to sanitize all contact surfaces in the front of their businesses every two hours.

Retail store employees will have to wear face coverings, gloves and other PPE items recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. COVID-19 symptoms must be reported to supervisors, and training will be provided on PPE use and hand sanitation.

Shifts, breaks and meals will be staggered for social distancing.

As customers are limited to 50% store capacity, customers also will be required to wear face masks and shopping hours are encouraged for the elderly, medically vulnerable and healthcare workers.

One-way aisles and traffic patterns for social distancing will be established, and curbside pickup and delivery service should be increased.

In addition, separate entrance and exits should be established, and plastic shields are to be used at checkout between the customer and clerk, which most stores are doing already.

Reusable bags will be prohibited, and “self-service” food stations and dining areas will be suspended, along with sampling of food and hygiene products. Management is expected to monitor compliance, and signs reminding people to social distance should be added.

Guidelines are to be released next week for gyms, churches and other similar facilities, as well as for hospitals and dental offices, which have been prohibited from elective surgeries. Dental offices have pretty much been shut down so the state could use their personal protective equipment supplies.

Barbers shops, salons, tattoo parlors and other businesses with close personal contact will have to wait longer.

Generally, Republican lawmakers have backed the governor’s approach, saying it is time to reboot the economy, while several Democrats have questioned the move.

Dr. Aaron Milstone, a Williamson County pulmonologist who has been treating COVID-19 patients and petitioned the governor in late March to set a statewide Safer at Home order, continued to question Lee’s decision.

“You are hearing mixed messages from politicians about whether it’s safe to reopen our economy and begin engaging with businesses again. Let us be clear. It. Is. Not,” Milstone said in a statement.

Milstone pointed out COVID-19 is five times more infectious then the flu and often travels in people who show no signs of illness. Its death rate is also 10 times higher than the rate for flu, and no treatment or vaccine exists.

He recommended people should stay apart until state and federal governments ensure rapid contact tracing, routine and rapid testing and adequate protection for first responders and healthcare workers.

Lee, however, said his decision is based largely on downward trends for the percentage of new cases and for flu-like symptoms seen in hospitals, as well as consultation with the Tennessee Hospital Association, Tennessee Medical Association and medical experts.


Bill Lee Mark Ezell
Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard is a Nashville-based reporter with more than 30 years of journalism experience as a writer, editor and columnist covering the state Legislature and Tennessee politics for The Daily Memphian.


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