Restaurants are limited, town squares are empty and it’s harder than ever to find folks to go hiking. However, we can still go. That makes this state a curious case.
The D.C. personal financing website WalletHub conducted a study on the states with the fewest COVID-19 restrictions. The economists there ranked all fifty states — plus Washington, D.C. — with first being the least restrictive and 51st being the most.
Tennessee initially made the top ten on May 5, ranking sixth. However, the Volunteer State currently ranks Tennessee 13th, making it one of the country’s least restricted areas.
WalletHub’s intent was to provide U.S. residents information about COVID restrictions and how they’d affect their safety and economy.
According to WalletHub analyst Jill Gonzalez, WalletHub would like readers to extrapolate their own takeaways instead of conforming to any one political idea.
"This ranking is very straightforward about the level of restrictions in each state, and how each state compares to others. There was no hypothesis behind the study. Readers can interpret the numbers however they would like," Gonzalez said.
Analysts based the ranking on a zero to 100 scoring system. They gave points based on 11 criteria, such as whether or not mask wearing is enforced, how limited large gatherings are, whether or not schools are still open and how limited restaurant and bar openings are. If a state had the highest level of restriction possible within a criterion, they’d receive a zero. If they had the least restriction possible, they’d receive an 11. The number was then weighted.
A full breakdown of the scoring system can be found here.
South Dakota — the least restrictive state — received a score of 86.74, while Illinois — the most restrictive — received an 11.16.
Tennessee sits at a D- with 53.95.
Natalie Simpson, an associate professor at the University of Buffalo, answered the question of early opening. She emphasized the need to balance economic wellbeing and individual safety.
“The earlier you reopen the public-facing portion of our economy, the higher our death toll. While the details of the virus simply aren’t known that relationship is now clear. As a nation, we must openly decide how we will balance the economic toll with the death toll in our response,” Simpson said.
So why are restrictions so low? Why is Tennessee opening so soon?
The largest contributors to that score are openings of schools, continuing child care programs, a relatively loose “shelter in place” policy and its early reopening of non-essential businesses. In fact, the study found Tennessee ranking first in lack of mask requirements, child care reopening and school reopening.
This may have something to do with food insecurity, as the Tennessee Department of Education reports one in six children under five needing food security resources, including school meals.
However, the majority of the study and questions around it concerned economic reopening and personal safety.
Tennessee ranks eighth highest in the nation for reopening of restaurants and bars, as well as 10th lowest in travel restrictions and 10th highest in reopening of non-essential businesses.
When asked about how COVID affects Tennessee’s major industries, Gonzalez pointed to agriculture and manufacturing as those most affected by the pandemic and its restrictions.
"Agriculture and manufacturing are among the most affected industries by the pandemic. While farmers may still be able to work their land, transporting the produce is among one of the biggest challenges they have,” Gonzalez said. “The same is true about the manufacturing industry. Even with the economy slowly opening, supply chains are still mostly restricted. Logistics is still an issue across the country."
This may explain why Tennessee is reopening so early, as agricultural supply chains need lower travel restrictions.
Tourism is another lucrative industry in Tennessee, so perceived need to increase tourism income may have led to fewer restrictions. Gonzalez discussed how COVID has affected tourism.
“The coronavirus pandemic has brought anxiety among travelers. This is why local authorities should try to slowly reintroduce a state of normality, while also looking after people's safety,” Gonzalez said. “Access to popular attractions should be limited to smaller groups."
A desire to protect smaller businesses may also explain the early openings. Smaller businesses don't receive as much COVID compensation as large companies, so many local stores struggle in the current environment without a secure livelihood.
Gonzalez predicts a reduction in the number of small businesses and encourages local business owners to take advantage of whatever help they can get.
“Tennessee is among the states with the most affected small businesses. It's not so much a question of regaining trust, as it is of being able to keep afloat and still serve their customers. To this end, small businesses should take advantage of any type of relief offered by the government,” Gonzalez said. “They should also take measures to ensure their establishments are disinfected, and their employees are wearing face masks and gloves. That being said, we are still going to see a reduction in locally owned small businesses, unfortunately."
However, while loose restrictions aid the economy, the individual citizens’ safety cannot be ignored.
On an individual level, social distancing remains instrumental. As the state opens and safety becomes an even more pressing issue, the analysts at WalletHub encourage citizens to maintain social distancing — with special attention paid to those in heavily populated cities.
"Clearly, people living in major metropolitan areas will need to take more measures of precaution as things start opening up and they begin going outside. People should be most careful in places like supermarkets or public transportation,” Gonzalez said. “Social distancing is key to keeping the pandemic under control, and those living in denser areas will need to make more of an effort in that sense."
Simpson made a similar recommendation, adding in the need to wear a mask.
“The greatest gift any individual can give society at this moment in history is to stay at home as much as possible and wear a cloth mask if you cannot,” Simpson said. “Don’t be distracted by discussions of how a cloth mask does not protect you from the virus like an N-95 mask does. This is true, a cloth mask does not provide you that kind of protection. However, you don’t wear a cloth mask because you’re trying to protect yourself, you wear it to protect everyone you meet. Until we have a vaccine, isolation is the only effective protection against the virus,”
Readers are encouraged to make their own conclusions about the data set and what it means for economic and citizen wellbeing.