Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke answered questions and hit upon several important topics during his Thursday Q&A session on Facebook Live. Later on in the broadcast, one Chattanoogan asked the Mayor if churches would be open for Easter Sunday.
“The answer to that is that churches around the city are closed,” said Mayor Berke. “This is one of the most difficult decisions I have made over the last few weeks.
I want anyone to be able to worship at any time and in any way they want, especially on Easter Sunday.”
“Unfortunately, we know church can be one of the most dangerous places with people sitting close together, and choirs are a place where the virus can be transmitted easily. So I’ve been on the phone with faith leaders over the last few weeks, and they’re finding innovative ways to worship.”
He also mentioned the small business relief fund the City Council approved on Wednesday. This fund set aside money to help small businesses that are struggling during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The fund sets aside $2,500,000 to help small businesses,” said Mayor Berke. “Those are businesses of 50 or under. We already have in the day it’s been open, 90 businesses that have applied. We’re going to try to help them in every way possible.”
“We are trying to help small businesses. This is really important because small businesses make up a huge piece of our local economy. We want to set up these local businesses to be in the best position to hire back as soon as they can.”
One person asked if the city government could force landlords to suspend rent during the crisis. Mayor Berke stated his office and the city government did not have that authority.
“We don’t have that ability. You still owe the rent no matter what,” said the Mayor. “That’s between you and your landlord, and that includes the Chattanooga Housing Authority. I do know there are some landlords who are willing to defer rent payments and that’s great. But I want to caution everyone out there who can pay their rent, they should pay it.”
He said that even if a landlord suspended rent, that rent would still be owed at a later date. The government also has no authority to force workplaces to provide safe working conditions during the crisis. However, he said that if someone had issues with their workplace, then they could contact the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
Another expressed frustration over the perceived slowness of testing for COVID-19, and the dearth of tests being performed in Chattanooga.
“Just like you, I’m frustrated by the lack of testing and what we’ve seen as having slowed down,” said the Mayor. “The health department has worked very hard to speed up the rate at which we get results back and the number of kits we have. But we know there is more work to do.”
Mayor Berke does a Facebook Live session every Monday and Thursday at 5:00 or 5:30.
Here is his Thursday message:
"This Sunday is Easter, which is one of the most important religious holidays of the year for many people in our region. Our recent executive orders related to the coronavirus strictly prohibit large gatherings of any kind, and this, unfortunately, includes worship services. This is another deeply sad decision that I have had to confront in the last several weeks: the very things that give us so much joy and life -- community and fellowship, particularly through worship -- are the very things we must avoid now in order to stop the spread of this terrible disease.
"I know that the sacrifices that I'm asking of each one of you are very difficult. They certainly are for me. The toughest times we face tend to bring out the best in all of us, though, and the way Chattanooga is dealing with the coronavirus is no different. In the last week, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Hamilton County has grown by more than 112% and nine members of our community have lost their lives to this disease. It's serious -- and so our response has to be serious too. If you can stay home, please stay home.
"Under the terms of our most recent executive order, you may drive-through a specific drop-off point at your church to make donations or pick-up food and other supplies. Person-to-person contact should be strictly limited, however. For instance, food or supplies should be placed in a car's trunk or backseat, not handed through a window. All congregants, church staff, and volunteers must wear face masks.
"I know many of you will miss being with your church family this weekend and I hate asking you to forgo in-person worship and a lot of other beloved Easter traditions this year. Your health and safety matters more to me than anything else right now, though, and I know that this sentiment is shared by every minister, priest, and faith leader in our community. The toughest times bring out the best qualities in each of us, and if we all do our part, we'll get to the other side of this that much faster.
"An additional measure of our most recent executive order is to close all daycares and early childcare centers that are not serving essential workers. We know this is a stressful decision for many childcare providers and our Office of Early Learning (OEL) is working with every facility in the city to make sure they understand the order and how it affects their business. OEL Director Ariel Ford did a quick video answering some of the questions we're hearing, you can watch it here.
"To be clear, I cannot stress enough the importance of eliminating all non-essential travel throughout the week. Wash your hands. Disinfect and clean your home frequently. Wear your face mask. Stay home.
"Thank you for doing your part."