Is Gov. Lee’s Decision to Reopen the Economy a Mistake?

As the nation grapples with the enormous task of reconciling public health with economic interests in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, Gov. Bill Lee has taken a clear and firm stance on the matter: Tennessee is one of a few states, alongside Georgia, Mississippi, and Oklahoma, that have reopened their economies. In Tennessee, restaurants resumed dine-in services on Monday– just one aspect of Gov. Bill Lee’s “Tennessee Pledge,” initiative, aimed at reopening businesses in 89 of the state’s 95 counties.

“Tennesseans pulled together to flatten the curve, and it is time for people to begin to get back to work and back to their businesses,” said Gov. Lee on Friday. However, these words don’t reflect the true state of the COVID-19 outbreak in Tennessee. NPR reported on Monday that the state has just seen its highest single day jump in coronavirus cases on record. The number of people infected statewide has reached 10,000.

Tennessee has also been hit hard by the economic consequences of social distancing efforts. Unemployment claims rose from 3,000 to 112,000 in just a three-week period between late March and early April. In addition, local food banks have seen a significant increase in demand, as families cope with job loss and financial hardship.

Mayor John Cooper has projected a $200 million to $300 million shortfall in expected taxes and revenue for this fiscal year and has even gone as far as asking Metro Schools to cut $100 million dollars from the annual budget. Amid growing unrest and uncertainty, the public remains divided about the reopening of the state, as leaders struggle to mitigate both the health and financial crisis. Many people are out of work, stimulus checks have not been received, and for some, paying rent has become an impossible feat. Nashville in particular has been hit with a double-whammy: first, the devastating tornadoes that struck earlier in the year destroyed homes, and workplaces, claiming dozens of lives, and now the city is struggling to cope with the loss of life at the hands of an entirely new force.

Opening the economy would ease Nashville’s financial burden, but at what cost? Louisiana became an unfortunate example of the consequences of not enforcing social distancing measures, in favor of economic benefits. The state allowed Mardi Gras festivities to take place, which sparked a massive spike in COVID-19 cases. As a result, Louisiana became the nation’s new coronavirus hotspot. Tennesseans seem to have varying perspectives regarding the reopening of the state’s economy:

“I don’t think Tennessee is ready to open up,” said 27-year old Michael, a Metro Nashville Government employee. “We haven’t flattened the curve, and we know that more human contact will lead to more cases, and more death.” He expressed an understanding of the economic strain facing families but believes stimulus checks and forbearance on the part of landlords is a better option than sending people back to work. “Is money more important than human life?” he questioned. “This isn’t the flu, and there are people in my family who suffer from chronic diseases and are really vulnerable to the virus. Everyone should do their part to protect those who are most susceptible to the virus.”

“I’m glad Tennessee is allowing citizens to get back to work,” said Allison, the 41-year old owner of a small business in downtown Nashville. “We can’t let the solution be more detrimental than the problem. Our economy can’t take this strain in the long-term.” She spoke of the financial burden that massive closures have inflicted on families and expressed concern for the local restaurants and small businesses struggling to stay afloat. “No, the pandemic isn’t over yet, but I think a lot of us are ready to take a risk and get back to work.”

Meanwhile, as millions of Tennesseans return to their daily lives, only time will tell whether the reopening of the state came too soon.

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