As of Friday in Scott County, you will be able to go to the grocery, have your oil changed, browse for new furniture, sit down for lunch at a restaurant, and go to the gym for a workout … but not get your hair cut or visit a tanning salon.
Even as Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee announced on Tuesday that gyms will be permitted to reopen across the state on Friday, May 1, there is still no word on when so-called “close contact” businesses can reopen.
“Close-contact” means those businesses where social distancing protocols cannot be easily put into place — such as barbershops, nail salons, beauty shops, tattoo parlors, massage services and tanning salons. All of those businesses are listed in “Phase 2” of Gov. Lee’s plan to reopen the Volunteer State, meaning it will be at least May 15 before those businesses can reopen. But an exact date has not been set in stone, meaning it could be longer.
The governor’s decision to leave these businesses shuttered even as the rest of the state’s economic functions are rebooted is, frankly, a head-scratcher. Few people have been louder advocates for ending coronavirus lockdowns and getting back to work as quickly as possible than Gov. Lee.
Residents appear split on whether the governor’s decision to reopen the state’s economy is the right move, with some convinced that the move to reopen businesses should’ve come sooner, and others convinced that the governor is acting too quickly and will cause coronavirus to roar back with a vengeance.
This isn’t an argument either way in that regard. Rather, it points out that, at this point, barbershops and salons are being unfairly singled out as everyone else gets back to work.
This would have perhaps been a moot point if the state’s reopening plan were unified. It isn’t. Under state law, six of the largest counties — Knox, Hamilton, Davidson, Shelby, Madison and Sullivan — have their own health departments that operate independently of the state health department, and leaders in those counties have more authority to issue their own guidelines. Knox County is taking advantage of that. County Mayor Glenn Jacobs — himself a vocal opponent of coronavirus-inspired shutdowns — has flexed his muscles under that state law and will allow close-contact businesses like barbershops and hair salons to reopen on Friday.
As a result, barbershops and hair salons are reopening in a major metropolitan area where there have been hundreds of cases of coronavirus, and where there remains active cases of the virus, while in rural Scott County where there have been fewer than a dozen cases of the virus and where there are no active cases, those businesses cannot open.
And because rural mayors don’t have the same authority under Tennessee’s government structure as the urban mayors, Scott County cannot act on its own as Knox County can.
Scott County Mayor Jeff Tibbals has been adamant since the coronavirus outbreak began that he doesn’t have the authority to close businesses or to reopen them. On Monday, the office of Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery III issued an opinion that backs up Mayor Tibbals. The AG said, “Absent an express delegation of power by the Governor, local governmental entities may not take actions that are either more restrictive or less restrictive with respect to the subjects addressed in the Governor’s executive orders governing the State’s emergency response to COVID-19. Such action would be at cross purposes with the Governor’s orders, which are the law of the State, and would constitute an impermissible legal conflict.”
So there you have it, if you weren’t convinced already. The final say-so on when businesses can reopen in rural Tennessee rests with the governor, and with the governor alone.
And this is what it boils down to: Scott Countians who are needing hair cuts, or color jobs, or are wanting their nails done will be able — as of Friday — to make the quick drive to Knoxville for those services … and the Scott County shops that remain closed, their employees in some cases ineligible for unemployment insurance benefits, will lose out.
If you spend much time in economic empowerment meetings, you’ll hear the term “leakage” thrown out a lot. Economic authorities measure how much money rural communities like ours “leak” to the larger, more urban areas because certain services or merchandise aren’t available here, or because customers simply choose to shop for those things elsewhere.
Scott County — like just about every rural community — leaks millions of dollars each year. Much of the time it’s inevitable. We leak millions of dollars to surrounding communities in new car sales, but it’s impossible to buy a new car in Scott County. We leak millions of dollars in clothing and sporting goods purchases, but those things are limited in Scott County.
With dozens of close-contact businesses ready, waiting and anxious to go back to work, its unconscionable that we should be placed in a position where we’re leaking those dollars, too, to Knoxville.
This isn’t hyperbole. This is what Scott County business owners are hearing from their customers and clients.
Take, for example, Kellie Walker. She and her husband, Dustin, own The Beautique, and Oneida tanning salon. She said Tuesday that many of her customers are telling her they will drive to Knoxville for the services they usually receive at The Beautique, which is being forced by the state to remain closed while their Knoxville counterparts are allowed to reopen.
“It rips my heart out that our county will be losing money to other counties that are reopening sooner,” Walker said.
Not only are we losing tax dollars to Knoxville, we’re also taking money directly out of the pockets of our business-owners, some of which are currently surviving on the federal government’s Payroll Protection Program and wondering if they’re going to survive this crisis. We’re taking money out of the bank accounts of those businesses’ employees, some of which cannot draw unemployment.
State Sen. Ken Yager, R-Kingston, chairman of the Senate Republican Caucus, has been a reliable ally of Gov. Lee’s on most issues. But on this issue, Yager and the governor differ. Yager, who represents Scott County, has been a vocal advocate for reopening Tennessee’s businesses. Following Lee’s announcement on gym reopenings on Tuesday, Yager said that barbershops and salons are “hurting.”
“I have contacted the governor’s Economic Recovery Group and expressed concern for these businesses, as well as others, and intend to continue to do so,” Yager said.
It’s imperative that the governor listen.
Overall, it’s hard to find too much fault with Gov. Lee’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak in Tennessee. With health experts placing a significant degree of importance on testing, Tennessee is leading the way regionally in that regard. In the Southeast, only Louisiana has tested more per capita than Tennessee — and Tennessee’s coronavirus case fatality rate remains the lowest in the region.
If the governor has erred, it has been on the side of appeasement. He’s tried hard to satisfy both those who called for more stringent actions in the beginning and those who pushed back against those actions as an infringement on residents’ civil liberties. In an editorial earlier in the outbreak, this newspaper called on Gov. Lee to show strong leadership — regardless of which side of the debate he sided with — so that his messages would be less confusing and easier to abide by.
But now it’s time to ask the governor to do the exact opposite — to change his mind. No governor in modern times has campaigned as stoutly as a champion for rural Tennessee as Lee did when he was seeking office as a political outsider in 2018. Right now, rural Tennessee is hurting. And as the state attorney general has confirmed, only the governor can take steps to ease that pain.
Nobody wants to put the lives of our elderly and medically vulnerable at risk. But nobody wants to see our residents face financial ruin, either. There must be middle ground.
Gov. Lee, it’s time to reopen Tennessee’s “close-contact” businesses when the Safer At Home order expires at midnight on April 30!
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