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Countdown is On for Soft Reopening of Businesses

Bella Golightly


Shelby County restaurants and retailers can join their counterparts in other rural parts of the state as “open-for-business” starting Monday. Local government and health officials say the county is prepared for a limited reboot based on hospital capacity and a flattening of new COVID cases.

The first phase of the county’s “Back to Business” plan restricts restaurants and retailers to half their normal occupancy and requires employees to wear masks. Gyms, churches and libraries are limited to 25 percent capacity.

To be clear, May 4 is not a return to pre-COVID life. Dr. Scott Strome, Medical School Dean at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, urges people to take it slow.

“Work at home when possible,” says Strome, who also consults with the team that crafted the county’s three-phased approach to reopening. “If you don’t need to go out to a retail store, don’t go out to a retail store. If you’re comfortable having takeout, have takeout.”

The goal of the stay-at-home order—in place since late March—partly has been to keep the virus from spreading so quickly that patients overwhelm hospitals. Social distancing also bought time to expand testing and gather additional life-saving equipment like ventilators.

Strome says strides in these areas justify removing certain lockdown restrictions. “Everything we do in life is a balance, and you’d like that to be a data-driven balance,” he says.


The growth rate of new cases has stabilized over the past month—an average of 66 cases per day, according to the county’s COVID-19 Task Force. Hospitalizations, including in the ICU, have also flattened since a peak in early April. Health experts note hospital capacity is especially important to monitor.

Strome acknowledges that weaker restrictions could lead to a rise in cases and more deaths.

“Is this a perfect solution? No, it’s not,” he says. “Is it a solution that balances the needs of folks to work with the realities of the virus and allows us flexibility? I think it’s an imperfect solution that allows us to do that.”

Officials say restrictions could return if cases begin to spiral out of control.

“If people...flood stores, it’s not going to work. I promise you, it won’t work,” Strome says. “The virus hasn’t changed, and while we’re stable right now, if people break this social contract and really start practicing outside of these guidelines, I think we’re going to be right back where we started.”