As the coronavirus-inspired shutdown prepares to enter its eighth week, the big story in Tennessee is that Gov. Bill Lee issued an executive order today mandating “close-contact” businesses like barbershops and nail salons remain closed through May 29.
A tipping point for angry Tennesseans — led by those salon and spa owners, who are understandably incensed — came earlier today, when Gov. Lee announced that gyms could reopen on Friday. Restaurants have already reopened their dining rooms, and retail stores will reopen on Wednesday.
Close-contact business owners immediately questioned why gyms could reopen and they could not. It’s a reasonable question. It would be hard to use science to justify a stance that going to the gym for a workout is any safer than getting your hair dyed.
Those business owners were angry because everything else was reopening and they were having to remain closed until May 15 — two more weeks … or so they thought.
We knew it would be at least two more weeks because Gov. Lee had previously laid out his three-step plan for reopening Tennessee, and close-contact businesses were placed in Step 2, which won’t kick in until May 15.
Then Gov. Lee dropped Executive Order 30, which mandates that those businesses will remain closed through May 29.
To be fair, the governor didn’t explicitly say that the close-contact businesses will be closed through May 29; in fact, he even said some businesses may be able to reopen shortly. But his executive order is in effect through May 29.
So this is the situation in Tennessee, as of Friday: You can drop the kids off at daycare, run to the grocery store, swing by and get your oil changed, go to the gym for a workout, run by the furniture store and pick out a new dinette set, sit down and have lunch … but you can’t get your hair cut.
It’s a little ridiculous … and that goes for anywhere in rural Tennessee. But it’s especially outrageous in East Tennessee, where Knoxville and Knox County will allow salons to reopen — by appointment only — on Friday.
Tennessee’s government structure delegates more power to the local level in urban areas. Six of the state’s largest counties — Knox, Hamilton, Davidson, Shelby, Madison and Sullivan — have their own health departments that operate independently of the state Dept. of Health. In those counties, local officials can issue orders that supersede the governor’s orders.
In the remaining 89 counties, however, the state doesn’t cede any control to the local level, leaving those counties entirely dependent on the state. In my home county — Scott — for example, the county mayor cannot order a business to close if the governor hasn’t ordered businesses in that sector to close, and he cannot allow businesses to open if the governor has ordered that sector closed.
So, in a rural county with fewer than a dozen cases of the coronavirus — none of them active — barbershops cannot open for another month. But 45 minutes down the road in metro Knoxville, where there have been hundreds of cases of coronavirus and five deaths, those shops are getting ready to open.
It makes no sense, but it’s worse than that. As Kellie Walker, who owns a tanning salon in Oneida, Tenn., said on Facebook on Tuesday, many of her customers have told her that they will go to Knoxville once tanning salons are open there.
So a rural county that’s already struggling, with one of the state’s highest unemployment rates, will lose more money to the metro area that’s much better positioned to endure the economic downturn that is the result of the coronavirus outbreak. It’s about a small community losing tax dollars — which is ultimately going to put even more of a burden on property tax payers — but it’s about more than that. It’s about shop owners on the verge of losing everything they’ve worked for … and it’s about their employees, many of whom do not qualify for unemployment insurance benefits, struggling to keep the lights on and the refrigerator stocked.
No one seems to be exactly sure what has motivated Lee’s decision to leave close-contact businesses closed. When restaurants reopened on Monday, Tennessee became one of the first states in the nation to begin reopening. And there have been few governors more vocal than Lee about the need to reboot the economy.
Yet, here we are. State Senator Ken Yager, a Republican who chairs the GOP Senate caucus, has been adamant that small businesses need to reopen. Typically a reliable ally of the governor’s, who goes to great lengths to avoid appearing critical of the governor on most issues, Yager has taken a decidedly different stance on this particular issue … but his words don’t seem to carry much influence with the governor, despite his lofty standing in the state legislature.
Yager hasn’t said so, but it seems to underscore what others in state government have said about the governor. No one says it publicly, but behind the scenes there are a lot of folks in state government who are not fans of Bill Lee. They complain that the governor — a political outsider in the same vein as Donald Trump, except with much more tact and class — only listens to an inner circle that’s made up of fellow political outsiders, that he fails to communicate through the traditional channels, and that he marches to the tune of influencers outside government.
None of those things are inherently bad qualities, but they can easily place a governor or a president in a position to be over his head, and one can’t help but wonder if Lee is there.
At the same time, one can’t help but wonder if Lee’s decision to leave close-contact businesses closed is a calculated decision based on motive. What that motive might be is anyone’s guess. But Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs — an ardent libertarian who, like Lee, is a political outsider — is a growing darling of those who are hoping for someone to mount a primary challenge against Lee in two years. Jacobs, the former WWE wrestling star, has been easily the most vocal critic of Lee’s coronavirus policies among urban mayors, even though he’s from the same party as the governor. It just so happens that he’s also the first urban mayor to reopen close-contact businesses.
For the most part, Lee’s coronavirus response has been hard to criticize. He too a lot of flack early on from those who deemed his response as too slow and too limited, but the data is backing him up, so far. And in a fight where most of the experts say testing is the top priority, Tennessee has positioned itself better than any other state in the South — with the exception of Louisiana — in that regard. Lee has appeared wishy-washy at times, listing first one way and then another as he’s tried to appease both the shutdown advocates who’ve called on him to do more and the civil liberties defenders who’ve argued that he should do less. For that, our newspaper wrote an editorial early on urging strong leadership from the governor. We didn’t take either side of the do-more/do-less argument, only urged him to take a stance and stand strong, because Tennessee needs — every state needs — strong leadership in times like these.
Perhaps that makes our new editorial, published today, before the governor’s latest executive order was announced, a little awkward. It calls on him to do just the opposite — change his mind; be a little wishy-washy again.
But rural Tennessee needs his help, and Bill Lee is supposed to be a champion of rural Tennessee. It’s what he campaigned on. We don’t know what the unemployment rate is in rural parts of the state right now. In my county, where unemployment had swelled from sub-4% to 6.7% and third-highest in the state just before this outbreak began, it’s probably somewhere between 20% and 25% at the present time.
And because Tennessee strips its rural counties of having any local decision-making authority, leaving them totally dependent on Nashville, Gov. Lee is the only one who can deliver the help that this county and others like it desperately need. But instead of allowing close-contact businesses to reopen — which would put people back to work — he’s made a mind-boggling decision to keep them closed for another month.
Across America, one of the overriding themes of this pandemic has been an eagerness by some politicians to control their constituents. We’ve seen it in politicians like Chattanooga’s Andy Berke, Kentucky’s Andy Beshear, Michigan’s Gretchen Whitmer, New York’s Andrew Cuomo, California’s Gavin Newsom, and others.
That’s not to say that I’m a coronavirus skeptic; I’m not. I’m one of the few whose politics hinge right-of-center who’ve argued vehemently that this virus is just as big a threat as it’s been made out to be.
Yet, there’s also no denying that too many of these state and local leaders seem to take a special sort of pride in telling people what they can and cannot do.
In Kentucky, Gov. Beshear’s latest order makes it a requirement for everyone to wear a cloth face covering in public. That’s a mandate that might make sense in densely-populated areas like New York City or San Francisco … but in wide-open Kentucky?
A couple of weeks ago, I needed to make a trip to Lowe’s, so we decided to drive to Somerset. Upon arrival, a store clerk and even a law enforcement officer were stationed at the entrance. As it turned out, Beshear had just signed an order stipulating that only one person per household is allowed into retail businesses. I understand the needlessness of an entire family going to the store, and have written as much. My kids haven’t been inside a store since the outbreak began in the U.S. But a husband and wife can’t go into Lowe’s to pick out a paint color? It’s absurd.
Just as absurd is Mayor Berke’s order that Chattanoogans not attend a drive-in church service lest they be fined.
And now, in California, Gov. Newsom has decreed that it will be “a long time,” as in many months, before things like sporting events are allowed to resume.
As real as Covid-19 is, we cannot continue to live like this indefinitely. Our economy won’t allow it. Our mental health won’t allow it. Our basic, God-given freedoms as human beings won’t allow it. At some point, even if it means that we’re placing the elderly and the medically vulnerable in harm’s way, we’ve got to get back to living. The point of social distancing was to prevent our hospitals from being overwhelmed. We did that. The next step was to get testing and contact-tracing protocols in place so that we could allow people to cautiously begin returning to normal without a full-scale wave of infections occurring again. We’ve failed miserably in that regard.
Early on, I said we couldn’t afford to go back to normal too soon because we’ve already inflicted irreparable harm to our economy, and to risk another wave of infections would be to throw away all of the sacrifices we’ve made. But considering how badly we’ve failed at preparing to fight this virus long-term, we’ve backed ourselves into a corner with just one option: Wait on a vaccine. That’s what some politicians are counting on. In issuing his order that all Kentuckians wear masks, Beshear said it was a requirement that will remain in effect until a vaccine is widely available.
But a vaccine is a year away. We cannot live like this for a year. We won’t live like this for a year. The American people will not stand for it. And so they’re looking for a way back.
And they know there’s going to be resistance from politicians like Whitmer and Beshear, who’ve thrived on the control they’ve been given over people’s day-to-day lives. But if we can’t count on politicians like Lee, who has steadfastly maintained from the beginning that Tennesseans should be able to voluntarily take measures to keep the virus in check rather than requiring mandates from the government, then we’re in real trouble.