Thursday, 17 December 2020

In Dollywood Land, A Mayor Is Faced With Making A Life-Or-Death Decision

 The word has come from Washington over to Nashville and then from Nashville over to Gatlinburg. 

So now Gatlinburg mayor Mike Werner, of the 4,150 population Tennessee tourist town, is faced with the hardest decision he has had to make in his 21-year city government career.

In order to help limit the spread of Covid-19, the mayor has had to warn visitors to avoid the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the aquarium, and Dollywood amusement park, which are attractions that last year drew in over 12 million visitors. However, President Trump has made it very clear that he wants the economy open, and governor Bill Lee is going to be allowing a majority of businesses to open once again on May 1. Therefore, Werner will need to determine how to protect people while reviving Gatlinburg at the same time.

The danger might appear to be far away. Although New York, Detroit, and New Orleans have hundreds or thousands of deaths, state figures show that just one out of 33 patients in Sevier County where Gatlinburg is located have died. 

Werner says that tourists have stopped coming, but once the influx has started up again, the numbers might be different. The last thing that we should do is rush to open and then have a spike in cases that can damage our summer, which is the thing that everyone is counting on and hoping for. It is mind-boggling. We want to do the right thing for most people. 

Trump has left many of the major decisions regarding the pandemic to the individual states Some of the Republican governors - especially in the South - have been anxious to move forward. Brian Kemp, the governor of Georgia, is planning to reopen tattoo parlors, hair salons, gyms, and bowling alleys. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis started a reopening task force which includes executives from a hospital, the state bankers association, AT&T, and Disney. It does not include any doctors. Tennessee Governor Bill Lee says that social distancing does work but is still allowing most businesses to reopen. 

The job of figuring out how to do this is falling to officials such as 69-year-old Werner, who has raised seven children in the town of Gatlinburg. Along with being the major, he is also the high school football announcer on Friday nights and a First Baptist Church Sunday morning beacon. When forest areas raged through the area almost four years ago, Werner reminded the local residents that they were "mountain tough." He is now trying to balance the health of the resident with the health of the businesses supporting their livelihoods. 

The overriding concern for Doctor Vickie Moore who is operated a Gatlinburg family practice for 38 years, is that the virus could be spread by tourists, which could lead to an influx of new patients. 

She says that she thinks they will have another outbreak unless they wait for an additional four weeks. When everyone goes back out I think we will see another peak. 

However, Moore's community role is different than Werner's. He measures how successful his daily neighborhood walks are by the number of people he speaks to. A couple of weeks ago, many residents were afraid. However, more are saying now that they are ready to return back to normal. 

With the announcement from Governor Lee, Werner cannot prevent businesses from operating. However, he can keep the town government shut down and hold off on any marketing to keep the number of visitors under control. 

Gatlinburg is defined by tourists. Formerly a subsistence farming community, Gatlinburg began gaining prominence when the national park was first established. Tourism sored in 1986 when Dolly Parton's theme park opened. On a normal spring day, downtown is full of families. Downtown is full of souvenir shops and attractions such as moonshine distilleries, Ripley's Believe It or Not, and Mirror Maze all set against a backdrop of foggy, rolling mountains. However, the streets were all empty this week. 

About half of the private-sector workers of Sevier County were employed in hospitality and leisure jobs last September, which the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, is the peak season. During the July-September time frame, they earned $490 per week on average. 

The Northcote family has earned their living with the Buckboard Too on Parkway, a nostalgia and pop culture store, located on the main street. They sell wares like Elvis Presley magnets and Coca-Cola posters. On March 17, the Northcotes closed their store. hey are still paying a few employees, some of who have worked for them for over 20 years. Their landlord is still demanding they pay rent. 

Werner has been in contact with the Northcotes and many other business owners, getting their opinions on plans for reopening and how to do it safely, exchanging ideas such as installing hand sanitizer dispensers downtown and mandating masks. Owner Tammy Northcote says she is ready to open their store on May 1. If I need to work the store by myself, I will do it. 

Many employees and business owners do not have an alternative income source or backup plan. Last year, prior to the pandemic, the unemployment rate in Sevier County was 3.3% compared to the nation's overall 3.7% rates. Now, many of those people do not have jobs.

Over 324,000 people in Tennessee applied for unemployment benefits over a four-week time frame. Others are still attempting to apply on the Tennessee state's overloaded website. The state on April 17 asked the unemployed to stagger their applications based on the final digit in their social security number. 

A 26-year-old waiter named Ty Sih was laid off from his job at Paul Deen's Family Kitchen, which is owned by the television cooking star. Although initially his landlord agreed to accept his rent late, last week Smith came home to an eviction notice taped on his front door. 

He said it is very scary, especially since I am a single father, and being stuck at home has been mentally tough. He wonders where he will be rehired by the restaurant after the stay-at-home orders have been lifted. 

Even with businesses reopening, it is still not clear how many visitors will be traveling to Gatlinburg - and the amount of disposable income they are going to have during a recession that is almost certain. There is danger lies ahead in a second wave of the virus causing shutdowns in the fall when tourists come to see the changing colors of the leaves. 

Tammy Yaksic, who is the owner of three gift shops downtown, says that the silver lining is that it is not occurring in the fall, which is their largest revenue-generating months. She plans to reopen as soon as she can while wearing a face mask. She feels that she has no other choice since her family is going through their saving after their government aid applications have not been answered. 

Although the leanings of the county are mainly Republican - with over 79% of the residents having voted for Trump - people have still not received much federal government assistance. Many small business owners did apply for assistance from the Paycheck Protection Program, which was designed to help owners keep their employees on their payrolls. However, last week the money ran out in the $349 billion fund. Recently the U.S. Senate approved legislation, and on Thursday it is expected that the House will pass it. The legislation includes an infusion of $320 billion into the program. 

Director of leasing Isaac Ogle for around one-third of the businesses in downtown Gatlinburg is not giving a break to any of the stores that did not apply for the program. Ogle is prepared for reopenings, mainly because he believes visitors will be descending anyway, eager to leave their houses. 

Ogle said I don't think anyone can control it, they are already coming. We have to be prepared. 

Dr.Moore is urging caution. She said, don't open all of the floodgates at the same time. Identify what is really essential and open up those, and then go to the next level.  

Werner continues to think and walk. He debates various ideas with neighbors, and at night he discusses things with his wife while they are sitting on their porch. 

He said I think it is time to open up, with good judgment and caution.

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