Every cloud, no matter how dark, has a silver lining.
Pre-pandemic, mayors from our region’s counties worked for more than a year to find common ground. Our focus was on economic development and marketing the region as a whole.
Then COVID-19 came to the Appalachian Highlands.
Pandemics do not recognize county lines. No matter where you land in regard to regionalism, there is no doubt that the bonding among mayors made responding to the COVID-19 pandemic as a region more effective.
The strategy to shut down safely and then reopen gradually as a region kept our numbers in line with expectations as we successfully flattened the curve early on.
As we reopened the region, I gathered together a group of local business leaders and formed the Business and Economic Recovery Task Force. This group met biweekly via Zoom to understand the reopening challenges businesses faced and strategize the best way to lead the local recovery.
We implemented a plan to display support of the Tennessee Pledge through window signage unique to our region. Our BERT group, in cooperation with RegionAhead.com, implemented a platform where the public could see which businesses and restaurants were compliant. Businesses registered their information to be listed and displayed on an interactive map where individuals who wanted a safe place to dine or shop could see who was compliant with the pledge.
The phased reopening of our businesses and economy went well through May and early June with record sales in some businesses and a low rate of increase in new COVID-19 cases.
In recent weeks, as summer plans included travel to areas with a high concentration of COVID-19 cases, our local positive cases began to swell. A map of the southeastern states reveals that our Appalachian Highlands region is surrounded by areas with high levels of the virus thus exposing, and in some cases infecting, our travelers.
The result has been an increase of positive cases locally as our friends and family return home. Active positive cases are at an all-time high in the region. This in turn is creating stress on our hospital capacity. Regional hospital admissions have doubled week over week since the end of June, a trend which is alarming.
Our regional health officials advised us that research indicates face coverings are up to 80 percent effective in reducing the spread of COVID-19. Based on the available information, local officials like myself issued directives to increase face covering use and encouraged all businesses to adopt the Tennessee Pledge.
Use of a face covering indicates the wearer cares about other people in their presence, as those are the ones being protected. We want to avoid a return to some of the restrictions that were placed upon us in the spring. We want to move forward continuing to support the recovery of our businesses that provide a safe, healthy place to dine, shop and play and demonstrate our concern for one another by following the guidelines.
It is critical to our region’s physical and economic health that we keep moving forward. Small inconveniences such as masks and physical distancing should not be viewed as stumbling blocks on the path to economic recovery.
Joe Grandy is mayor of Washington County, Tennessee.