In the Land of Dollywood, a Mayor Faces a Life-or-Death Decision

(Bloomberg) -- The word came down from Washington to Nashville and from Nashville to Gatlinburg.

Now Mike Werner, mayor of the Tennessee tourist town, population 4,150, is facing the most difficult choice of his 21-year career in city government.

To curb the spread of Covid-19, he’s had to warn vacationers to avoid the Dollywood amusement park, the aquarium and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, attractions that drew more than 12 million visitors last year. But President Donald Trump has made clear he wants economies humming, and Governor Bill Lee will allow most businesses to reopen May 1. So Werner must decide how to revive Gatlinburg while protecting his people.

In the Land of Dollywood, a Mayor Faces a Life-or-Death Decision

The danger can seem far away. While New Orleans, Detroit and New York count their dead by the hundreds and thousands, only one of the 33 patients in Gatlinburg’s Sevier County has died, according to state figures.

“The influx of tourists has stopped, but once it starts up again, we may have different numbers,” said Werner. “The last thing we need to do is open in a rush and have a spike of cases and that could hurt our summer, which is what people are hoping for and counting on. It’s mind-boggling. You want to do the right thing for the majority of people.”

Trump has left many weighty decisions about the pandemic to the states, and some Republican governors -- particularly in the South -- have been eager to plunge ahead. In Georgia, Brian Kemp plans to reopen bowling alleys, gyms, hair salons and tattoo parlors on Friday. Ron DeSantis named a Florida reopening task force that includes executives from Disney, AT&T, the state bankers association and a hospital. It has no doctors. Tennessee’s Lee said “social distancing works,” but nonetheless is allowing the vast majority of businesses to reopen.

In the Land of Dollywood, a Mayor Faces a Life-or-Death Decision

The task of figuring out how falls to officials like Werner, 69, who raised seven children in Gatlinburg. In addition being mayor, he’s a Friday-night high-school football announcer and a Sunday-morning deacon at First Baptist Church. When forest fires swept through nearly four years ago, he reminded residents that they’re “mountain tough.” Now he’s trying to balance the health of those same people with the health of businesses that support their livelihoods.

For Vickie Moore, a doctor who’s operated a family practice in Gatlinburg for 38 years, the overriding concern is that tourists could spread the virus, leading to a rush of new patients.

“I have the feeling that unless they wait another four weeks we’re going to have another outbreak,” she said. “I think what you’re going to see is another peak when everyone is going back out.”

In the Land of Dollywood, a Mayor Faces a Life-or-Death Decision

But Moore plays a different role in the community than Werner, who measures the success of his daily neighborhood walks by how many people he talks with. A few weeks ago, many residents were fearful. Now, more say they’re ready for a return to normality.

With Lee’s announcement, Werner can’t stop businesses from operating, but he can keep town government closed and hold off marketing efforts to keep visitors at bay.

Tourists define Gatlinburg. Once a subsistence farming community, it gained prominence when the national park was established in 1934. Tourism soared with the opening of Dolly Parton’s theme park in 1986. On a typical spring day, families gridlock downtown, which is filled with souvenir shops, attractions like Ripley’s Mirror Maze and Believe It or Not exhibit and moonshine distilleries, all set against a backdrop of gently rolling, foggy mountains. This week, streets were empty.

About half of Sevier County’s private-sector workers were employed in leisure and hospitality jobs last September, the peak season, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In the July-September period, they made an average of $490 a week.

In the Land of Dollywood, a Mayor Faces a Life-or-Death Decision

The Northcote family has made its living from a pop culture and nostalgia store called Buckboard Too on Parkway, the main street, selling wares like Coca-Cola posters and Elvis Presley magnets. The Northcotes shut down March 17. They’re still paying their handful of employees, some of whom they’ve had for more than 20 years. The landlord is still demanding rent.

Werner has been in touch with the Northcotes and countless other business owners to get their opinion on reopening plans and ways to do so safely, throwing around ideas like mandating masks or installing hand-sanitizer dispensers downtown.

“I’m ready to open the store May 1,” said Tammy Northcote, the 56-year-old owner. “If I have to work the store alone, that’s what I intend to do.”

Many business owners and employees have no backup plan or alternative source of income. Last year, before the pandemic, Sevier County’s unemployment rate was 3.3%, compared with 3.7% for the nation as a whole. Now, many are without jobs.

Over a four-week period, more than 324,000 Tennesseans applied for unemployment benefits. Others are still trying to apply on the state’s overloaded website. On April 17, the state asked the jobless to stagger their applications according to the last digit of their social security number.

In the Land of Dollywood, a Mayor Faces a Life-or-Death Decision

Ty Smith, a 26-year-old restaurant server, was dismissed from his job working at Paula Deen’s Family Kitchen, owned by the Southern cooking star. Although his landlord initially agreed to accept the rent late, Smith came home last week to an eviction notice taped to his door.

“It’s scary, especially being a single father, and it’s been mentally tough being stuck at home,” he said. He wonders whether the restaurant will rehire him after stay-at-home orders are lifted.

Even with businesses back in action, it’s unclear how many people will travel to the mountain town -- and how much disposable income they will have given an almost certain recession. Danger lies in a second virus wave causing shutdowns in autumn, when tourists visit to see leaves change colors.

“The silver lining is that this is not happening in our biggest revenue generating months in the fall,” said Tammy Yaksic, who owns three downtown gift shops. She’s planning to reopen as soon as possible, wearing a face mask. There’s no other choice, considering that her family is burning through savings after applications for government aid have gone unanswered.

Although the county’s leanings are largely Republican -- more than 79% of residents voted for Trump -- citizens have yet to receive much help from the federal government. Many small-business owners applied for the Paycheck Protection Program, designed to keep workers on their payrolls, but the $349 billion fund ran out of money last week. The U.S. Senate recently approved legislation, which the House is expected to pass Thursday, that includes a $320 billion infusion for the program.

In the Land of Dollywood, a Mayor Faces a Life-or-Death Decision

Isaac Ogle, director of leasing for about one third of Gatlinburg’s businesses downtown, isn’t giving a break to any stores that haven’t applied for the program. He’s ready for reopenings, mostly because he thinks visitors are going to descend anyway, anxious to escape their homes.

“I don’t think it’s in anyone’s control, they’re coming already,” Ogle said. “We need to be ready for it.”

Moore, the doctor, urged caution. “Don’t open the floodgates all at once,” she said. “Identify what is essential and open that up, then work to the next level.”

Werner keeps walking and thinking, thinking and walking. He debates ideas with his neighbors. In the evenings, he talks it through with his wife as they sit on their porch.

“I think it’s time, with caution and good judgment, to open up,” he said.

He’s leaning toward May 15.

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