Back in Business?

Fountain Lanes

Back in Business?

Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs issues recommendations for reopening the local economy. But nobody expects a rapid recovery.

by jesse fox mayshark • april 15, 2020


fountain lanes on broadway is one of many "nonessential" businesses closed during the pandemic.

A day after Gov. Bill Lee set a goal of lifting restrictions on businesses across the state on May 1, Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs released a set of recommendations Tuesday for the best ways to do that.

Even the most optimistic projections expect a gradual and limited return for much of the private sector.

Jacobs envisions a phased six-week period of gradual reopenings of businesses that have been shuttered or severely limited by the efforts to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus. 

“We drew from a lot of different sources really trying to distill down guidelines and best practices from businesses that are still open and doing business,” Jacobs said in a phone interview Tuesday afternoon.

Those included major retailers like Target, Walmart and Walgreens. Jacobs sat in on an online meeting over the weekend with representatives from those companies, along with U.S. Rep. Tim Burchett and state Rep. Jason Zachary.

Jacobs has provided his proposal to Lee in response to the governor’s request for input from mayors from Tennessee’s largest counties and cities. Lee is also forming an Economic Recovery Group to help guide what he has described as a gradual return to full business operations.

Jacobs’ proposal came on a day when the Tennessee Department of Health added just one new confirmed COVID-19 case to Knox County’s count, bringing the cumulative total to 174. Of those, four have died, 21 have required hospitalization, and 131 are listed by the county Health Department as recovered. 

The governor has promised “industry-specific guidance” to protect health and safety so businesses, employees and customers will know what to expect. “He asked for ideas on a conference call with city and county mayors from around the state,” Jacobs said. 

Jacobs’ three-page proposal sets out parameters for a number of different kinds of businesses. (You can read the full proposal here.) Among his recommendations:

  • All businesses should require employees to stay home if they’re sick and take their temperature each day before reporting to work. They should increase their hygiene and housekeeping practices, including frequent handwashing and sanitizing of workspaces. They should also discourage shared desks and work equipment and allow flexibility in working remotely or in staggered shifts to limit employee proximity. And they should consider having employees wear facemasks in the office.
  • Restaurants could reopen for sit-down dining at half their original approved capacity, with tables spaced at least 6 feet apart. After two weeks, if local infection rates do not increase, capacity could be increased to 75 percent. After four weeks, officials could consider allowing a full-capacity reopening.
  • Bars or the bar area of a restaurant could initially open at 10 percent of normal capacity, increasing to 50 percent after two weeks and 75 percent after four weeks, before an eventual return to full capacity.
  • Retail stores should follow practices already being used by essential businesses like grocery and hardware stores, by limiting the number of customers allowed in at any time and marking safe distances from cash registers to keep people physically separated.  
  • Communal venues like theaters should reduce seating capacity to allow physical distancing and check temperatures of patrons before they enter.
  • Gyms and health clubs should limit capacity to five patrons per 1,000 square feet, limit workouts to 45 minutes and require patrons to clean equipment with sanitizer before and after using it.

From the beginning of the pandemic, Jacobs has advocated for minimizing the damage to the economy. He has been less comfortable with mandatory restrictions on the private sector than Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon, who has emphasized the health risks of allowing business as usual.

"Nothing the mayor or the governor or the president says on a given day is the final word on this.” – Bill Fox, University of Tennessee economist

But even Jacobs’ proposal to the governor acknowledges that any wide-scale reopening will be gradual. For one thing, he said, many members of the public will remain cautious about exposing themselves to the ongoing risk of coronavirus infection.

“Even after we say things are going to start opening back up, I don’t think people are going to flock back to certain businesses, because everyone is aware of this issue,” Jacobs said.

University of Tennessee economist Bill Fox, director of the Boyd Center for Business and Economic Research, agreed. 

“Nothing the mayor or the governor or the president says on a given day is the final word on this,” Fox said. “If we do open with many people feeling that they’re not safe, then the demand side of this is still going to be very slow coming back.”

He said there are many other unknowns ahead: how quickly the international supply chain will be recover; how many workers will be willing to come back to jobs if the threat of infection remains, particularly given the federal government’s short-term boost to unemployment payments; and whether a later spike in new cases of COVID-19 could force a second wave of shutdowns.

On the latter point, Jacobs said any reopening would have to be accompanied by ongoing monitoring of case counts. His proposal moves in two-week increments because that is the incubation period of the novel coronavirus.

“You have to keep a really close eye on those numbers and make sure you’re doing things in an appropriate manner,” Jacobs said.

The majority of businesses in Knox County are within the city limits of Knoxville. Kincannon has said she will continue to renew the city’s “Safer at Home” order on a weekly basis until certain health and safety metrics are met. Those include a consistent decline in new cases, widespread availability of testing, and the ability to trace personal contacts of people who have been infected.

In a statement in response to Jacobs’ proposal, Kincannon said, “I look forward to the day when we can safely reopen businesses across our city. I am optimistic that social distancing is working and that we will be looking to implement a plan in the coming weeks.”

She added, “I am consulting local business leaders, medical professionals and the Knox County Health Department on constructing an outline that incorporates the best practices to keep the virus from rapidly spreading. Opening of businesses must happen in an orderly and cooperative manner.”

Jacobs said if Lee does lift his statewide order, he expects the governor to give leeway to local governments to move at their own pace depending on local conditions. Jacobs said he would coordinate with local stakeholders, including the Health Department, business leaders and the city administration.

(Asked if the city was given a heads up about Jacobs’ proposal before he released it Tuesday, Kincannon said no.)

Mike Odom, president and CEO of the Knoxville Chamber, said in an email Tuesday that the organization would work to coordinate plans for any reopening.

We trust our leaders to establish safe and thoughtful guidelines around reopening local businesses, and the Knoxville Chamber team is prepared to support the community through that process,” Odom said. “We are in daily communication with area employers and elected officials, offering resources and facilitating conversations as needed.”

Fox said nobody should expect a rapid return to pre-pandemic normalcy. He said the V-shaped decline in economic activity would most likely see a U- or even L-shaped recovery.

“We just have to recognize that the economy needs to operate at a sustainable level to have any quality of life for all of us,” Fox said. “But I do expect it to be slow, and in fits and starts.”