Lee administration says counties hold sway over cities on reopening policies

Gov. Bill Lee speaks to reporters on March 19, 2019, about his proposal to introduce an education savings account program in Tennessee. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Gov. Bill Lee’s office clarified over the weekend that the six counties being given the leeway to chart their own course on economic reopening amid the coronavirus pandemic will be given the authority to make those decisions for cities located within their jurisdictions.

That decision has policy implications primarily in Knox and Hamilton counties, where Republican county officials have clashed with Democratic city leaders over the extent of lockdowns.

The Chattanooga Times Free Press reports the city’s mayor, Andy Berke, disagrees with efforts to resume in-person dining at restaurants.

“Yesterday I learned that, despite public and private assurances otherwise, the city of Chattanooga would not be making its own decisions for the reopening of restaurants,” Berke said. “This has understandably caused a lot of confusion for a lot of people in our city,” Berke wrote Sunday, saying that he will abide by the governor’s decision. “Chattanooga will obey the law, and I will do everything possible to ensure its success. I want every restaurant to make payroll, and I want to protect as many Chattanoogans as possible from contracting the coronavirus.”

Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger, who has decided to follow the governor’s plan for reopening the 89 of 95 counties, said it will be left up to local businesses to decide whether to resume business.

“No one is being forced to reopen, and no one is being forced to go to a restaurant if they do not think it’s safe,” Coppinger told the Times Free Press. “As we’ve said all along, this is the first small step to try to bring our economy back while maintaining safety protocols. All this does is allows restaurants the opportunity to choose to open.”

Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs and Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon announced their joint plan on Monday.

Lee didn’t appear certain when asked last week whether workers would still qualify for unemployment benefits if they feel unsafe returning to their reopened place of employment.

In Shelby County, Democrats run both county government and the city of Memphis, though Republicans run most of the other municipalities. Nashville and Davidson County form a combined government.

The other two counties left to decide their own direction are Madison and Sullivan.

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