March 20, 2020 6:00am

Most area leaders confident about response to coronavirus

March Power Poll generates 45% response rate

By Meghan Mangrum
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As cities and counties across the nation grapple with how to respond to the ongoing coronavirus crisis — from closing schools to ordering restaurants and bars to stop dine-in service and canceling government meetings and music festivals — most area leaders say they are confident that local government agencies and health care providers are handling the pandemic appropriately.

More than 75% of Chattanooga business, civic and government leaders who responded to a new Power Poll said they are confident or “very confident” in how local government leaders such as Mayors Jim Coppinger and Andy Berke have responded.

“Now is the time for leaders to separate themselves from politicians,” said Weston Wamp, a political reform advocate and member of the Tennessee Board of Regents, in response to the poll. “As positive tests come back in Hamilton County, we need daily guidance, reassurances and ultimately a comprehensive vision from local elected officials as to how we will navigate in the coming weeks. Local leaders should not wait on federal relief and need to begin proactive measures to support small businesses and individuals in the greatest need.”

Tim Kelly, owner of Kelly Subaru and co-founder and chairman of the Chattanooga Football Club, echoed Wamp but also emphasized that it won’t be easy.

“It is incumbent upon local leaders to keep cool heads and steady hands at a time like this, particularly until we get better data,” Kelly said in response to the poll. “Reconciling grave public health and economic concerns is not something we’re used to doing, and it won’t be easy.”

On Thursday, Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke signed an executive order mandating that all restaurants and bars in the city end dine-in services and all gyms close to protect against the spread of the virus. Berke’s move came just a day after Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger recommended the same for businesses throughout the county.

But with local businesses shutting their doors, major events canceling and waves of layoffs, the majority of Power Poll respondents are also worried about the long-term impact that will have on the economy.

More than 80% of respondents said measures such as school closures, event cancellations and travel warnings are smart and necessary, though — with an overwhelming 97% agreeing that such actions are not overreactions.

“Stay informed, heed the advice of health care professionals, and take all the proper precautions,” said Gary Behler, Hamilton County juvenile court clerk, in response to the poll. “Make wise, well-thought-out decisions to modify your business or governmental practices as needed to provide essential services. Restrain and caution are the order of the day.”

Overwhelmingly, of the 85 people polled, 76 said they believed that they had “access to trusted, timely, and credible information about coronavirus.”

“I am grateful that the Times Free Press and other digital media outlets have taken measures to optimize public access to timely, accurate information,” said David Steele, director of civic engagement for the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, in response to the poll. “Pushing potentially life-saving coverage beyond the paywall was the right thing to do, and I am proud to be a subscriber, supporting quality journalism.”

Frank Williamson, local banker and founder and chief executive officer of Oaklyn Consulting, echoed Steele.

“This is a time when local journalism makes a difference,” he said.

For more coverage of COVID-19 by the Times Free Press, visit:

Contact Meghan Mangrum at or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.

Power Poll Members: Do you have a friend or colleague who should be on Power Poll? Please invite them to join!

About Power Poll: Power Poll asks questions of the most powerful, influential people in U.S. cities. It is not a scientific survey. But because the people responding to the surveys comprise the leadership structure of their cities, the results afford a fascinating glimpse into the thoughts, opinions, and beliefs of those in a position to make change. Power Poll is distinctly nonpartisan.

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