Cities’ View

Cities' View

Tennessee’s ‘Big Four’ mayors form a task force to develop recommendations to Gov. Bill Lee for reopening the state's economy.

by scott barker • April 17, 2020

From left, Mayors Andy Berke of Chattanooga, Indya Kincannon of Knoxville, John Cooper of Nashville and Jim Strickland of Memphis on a joint visit to Nashville earlier this year.

Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon has joined with the mayors of the state’s three other large cities to form a task force to plan and coordinate the resumption of nonessential commercial activities that were shut down at the beginning of April as part of the coronavirus pandemic response.

The task force will consult medical experts and evaluate economic conditions to develop its recommendations.

Dubbed the Tennessee Major Metros Economic Restart Task Force, the group will make recommendations to Gov. Bill Lee, who announced earlier this week he wants to phase in a restoration of business activity beginning May 1.

Kincannon, Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland, Nashville Mayor John Cooper, and Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke announced the formation of the task force on Thursday.

“Thanks to the cooperation of our residents, we have seen success in ‘flattening the curve’ in our communities, but we know that our economies cannot remain closed indefinitely,” Kincannon said in a statement. “The members of this task force will help us implement responsible, data-driven strategies to protect the public and ensure that our partners in the business community can operate safely.”

Nashville and Memphis are the Tennessee cities that have been hit the hardest with COVID-19 cases since the novel coronavirus arrived in Tennessee in late March. Davidson (Nashville) and Shelby (Memphis) counties have seen 1,307 and 1,492 cases, respectively. Knox County has had 182 cases, according to the state Department of Health, while Hamilton County, where Chattanooga is the county seat, has seen 110 cases.

The number of new cases is slowing, however, raising the expectation that a gradual restoration of economic activity is possible while safeguarding the public health. As of Thursday afternoon, Tennessee had recorded 6,262 cases and 141 deaths. Forty-four percent of all patients have recovered.

Statewide, the Health Department reported 183 new cases on Thursday. “This is the smallest day over day increase we’ve seen and we are confident we are flattening the curve,” state Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey said.

Lee has said he hopes to lift his statewide Stay at Home order on May 1 and has asked for input from the Tennessee mayors and other leaders. The task force will collect information and collaborate with Tennessee Tourist Development Commissioner Mark Ezell, who is heading up Lee’s economic reboot effort. 

“We will get through this crisis by working as a team,” Strickland said. “It will take that same teamwork to revive our economy and get Memphians back into the workforce and to see our city thriving once again. I look forward to partnering with the governor and the other major cities.”

The city mayors issued safer-at-home orders asking the public to follow social distancing practices, closing nonessential businesses and limiting public gatherings before Lee mandated similar restrictions statewide on April 2. 

“As employment centers and healthcare providers for their regions, the four metro areas must coordinate and help inform the statewide approach,” Nashville’s Cooper said. “Our challenge is restarting our economy with protocols to protect public health.”

The mayors said the task force will consult medical experts and evaluate economic conditions to develop recommendations and public health protocols for restarting business activity. The focus, they said, will be on determining the factors that indicate when businesses are safe to reopen, how to phase in business reopenings, and developing requirements for safe business operations.

“From the beginning of this crisis, Tennessee’s major metro areas have been aligned on how to respond to this crisis,” said Berke, the Chattanooga mayor. “ We’re going to stay aligned as we plan for a prosperous and healthy future.”

Each mayor has appointed a top deputy to staff the task force. Kincannon assigned the job to Chief Economic and Community Development Officer Stephanie Welch. 

Knoxville’s representatives on the task force are Kathy Brown of the University of Tennessee’s Department of Public Health; Dave Miller, First Horizon Bank’s East Tennessee regional president; Knoxville Chamber President and CEO Mike Odom; and Ryan Steffy, general manager of SoKno Taco Restaurant.

Welch has a background in public health and is a major and executive officer for a medical support unit of the Tennessee National Guard. She formerly worked at the Knox County Health Department. Brown also previously worked for the Health Department, first as the regional epidemiologist and then as the director of community assessment and health promotion.

“The task force is just making recommendations, but we are confident having people with varied backgrounds from all of our communities will help make this a successful plan that will help us get businesses up and running, while reducing the chance of seeing a spike in COVID-19 cases,” Kincannon said.

While the Tennessee Major Metros Economic Restart Task Force is an initiative of the state’s major cities, the county mayors in each metropolitan area, including Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs, vetted and signed off on the appointees.

“All of the county mayors were consulted and approve of the task force appointees,” Kincannon said. “The idea is that we will all be working collaboratively in the best interest of the communities we serve.”

Jacobs said in a statement that he doesn’t believe the task force will work at cross purposes with county governments. 

“This effort builds on the plans I shared with Gov. Lee earlier this week,” Jacobs said, referring to a phased recovery recommendation he announced on Tuesday. “Together we can pull together the best minds in our communities to help formulate a comprehensive strategy for reopening the economy.” 

Kincannon emphasized that she and Jacobs made the appointments jointly and “have great confidence that they will develop recommendations that balance our need to restart the economy with our need to protect public health.”

Piercey, the state Health Commissioner, said Tennesseans will need to continue practicing social distancing as economic activity rekindles to keep COVID-19 at bay. “The worst thing that could happen,” she said, “is that we open up too soon and we relax the social distancing too quickly.”