May 18, 2020
Tennessee is officially reopening as of May 22 under “The Tennessee Pledge,” with guidance to be provided later this week by the governor’s recently formed Economic Recovery Group.
The reopening comes at a time when social distancing constraints imposed by the governor’s prior executive orders appear to have failed to mitigate actual behavior in the state (the state maintains an “F” rating under the Unacast Social Distancing Scoreboard) and attempts to balance (and justify the reopening as a result of) the catastrophic economic impact of COVID-19 versus public health & safety concerns.
The relaxation in state restrictions comes from the Economic Recovery Group (composed of 30 leaders from the public and private sector and collectively represent over 140,000 Tennessee businesses that employ over 2.5M Tennesseans), rather than via another of the governor’s executive orders. The ERC will be providing “Large Attractions” guidance that applies to that class of businesses (including racetracks, amusement parks, waterparks, theaters and dinner theaters, auditoriums, large museums, etc.), restrictions on social gatherings of more than 10 people, and updates to Restaurant Guidance from the prior version of the Pledge that will include lifting capacity restrictions and allowing for increased service. Juxtaposed against the relaxation in capacity restrictions, however, is continued guidance and focus on social distancing guidelines. The ERG release includes graphics illustrating a reduction in influenza-like illnesses, COVID-like symptomology, and reported COVID cases & positive COVID tests (against a flat or increasing volume of COVID testing).
The original Tennessee Pledge was a 43 page guideline for Reopening Tennessee Responsibly. The Pledge has a set of “Universal Guidelines” (which incorporate by reference guidance from OSHA, the CDC, and the Tennessee Department of Health) and special provisions for:
As reported previously, Tennessee has been under extensions and variations of executive orders from the governor since mid-March that left the state under a patchwork of overlapping (and sometimes conflicting) directives, with one set of rules for the state’s less populous counties and others for each of six larger counties containing some of the major retail and tourism centers). That situation continues under the Tennessee Pledge (the original Pledge, and nominally its pending revision, explicitly excepting the counties that include the cities of Memphis, Nashville, Chattanooga, Knoxville, Jackson, and Blountville, but not the large bedroom/feeder communities around these cities).
Like other states, Tennessee’s economy (which is fueled by tourism) has been subjected to unprecedented levels of unemployment, with over 500,000 unemployment claims since the start of the pandemic (out of a total prior job count of 3 million). The loss of jobs in Tennessee is particularly problematic, in that Tennessee is one of the ten worst states with respect to the maximum weekly unemployment payments and the duration of benefits (with a maximum weekly benefit of $275 and maximum duration of 26 weeks) – and those benefits are currently available to less than 16% of those who are actually unemployed.
The state (that is fueled by the state sales tax and associated business franchise-excise tax, rather than a state income tax) has also seen previously unimaginable GDP declines, with Tennessee’s gross domestic product projected to decline by over $5 billion in 2020 (which projection assumed businesses reopening May 1) and state revenue collections decreasing more than any time since the Great Depression.
As of May 15, Tennessee had 16,970 confirmed cases of coronavirus, with less than 300 deaths against over 9,000 recoveries, for a population of almost 7 million.
Practically, the result of the reopening may be a “grand experiment” in peer pressure, as opposed to government mandate, as the principle tool against the pandemic under the new guidance appears to be a “no shirt, no shoes, no mask – no service” approach to containment and curve flattening.
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