I’ve never been to this Walmart when there wasn’t a crowd, including during the shutdown.

Taylor Nicole Rogers/Business Insider

My home state of Tennessee started to reopen last week.

In March, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee issued a “safer at home” order through the end of April that asked residents to stay at home. 

Lee stopped short of issuing a shelter-in-place order that would require residents to stay home and close non-essential businesses that could implement social distancing policies.

I drove around my hometown of Chattanooga, Tennessee, one evening in early April 2020 when the state was under the safer-at-home order and observed people in parks and standing in crowded checkout lines at the grocery store.

Some others took socially-distanced walks which were allowed under the state guidelines.

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I’ve lived in New York City for nearly five years. When the city began to report cases of the novel coronavirus in early March, I decided to return to my hometown of Chattanooga, Tennessee. I took a flight home before authorities advised against nonessential travel, and while I thought it would be a quick visit with my family, it’s May and I’m still here.

I was already in Tennessee when, on March 31, Gov. Bill Lee issued a shelter-in-place executive order for the state. In a statement released April 2, Lee clarified that the order is “not a mandated ‘shelter in place’ order because it remains deeply important to me to protect personal liberties.” Many non-essential businesses were closed by the order, but residents were not required to stay in their homes. The initial executive order was supposed to last until April 14, 2020.

In the same statement, Gov. Lee also said that he has “seen data indicating that movement may be increasing,” indicating that Tennesseans weren’t following social distancing guidelines and temporarily extended our shutdown, but now he’s gradually reopening the state, starting with dine-in restaurants and retail stores last week.

Tennessee has scored an F on a social distancing scoreboard

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Tennessee currently has an F score on the social distancing scoreboard compiled by New York location data and analytics firm Unacast. It had a D- score when these pictures were taken.

The scoreboard maps how well states are social distancing by using location services data from games and shopping apps already downloaded onto millions of Americans’ phones. Uncast has given Hamilton County, where these photos were taken, an F. It had a C- when these pictures were taken, during the state’s safer-at-home orders. 

Some of the movement in Tennesee could be attributed to the devastating tornados that reduced parts of Chattanooga to rubble in April and left 27,000 Chattanoogans still without electricity. These photos were taken before the tornadoes.

I drove around my hometown of Chattanooga, Tennessee one evening in early April 2020. Hamilton County, where Chattanooga is located, currently has 213 confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus.

Chattanooga, Tennessee as seen from Point Park in 2018.

Taylor Nicole Rogers/Business Insider

Source: The Chattanooga Times Free Press, Hamilton County Health Department

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee asked residents to stay home under a “safer at home” order to slow the virus’ spread on March 23 but stopped short of mandating a shelter-in-place. He began to reopen the state last week, starting with restaurants and retail stores.

Tennessee Governor Bill Lee.

AP Photo/Mark Humphrey,

Source: Tennessee Office of the Governor


Just a few weeks into Tennessee’s safer-at-home mandate, data from Unacast and the Department of Transportation “indicate[d] travel is trending upwards, again” after dropping off between March 13 and 29.

Cars drive along I-24 south, leaving downtown Chattanooga.

Taylor Nicole Rogers/Business Insider

Source: Tennessee Office of the Governor

Before the reopening, non-essential businesses including movie theaters and shopping centers were closed. On April 8, the shopping center pictured below, which is on the outskirts of Chattanooga’s Hamilton Place Mall, was totally deserted. I drove by around 6 p.m. and didn’t see a single car in the parking lot.

An closed shopping center in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Taylor Nicole Rogers/Business Insider

The closures didn’t keep residents at home. When I drove down Interstate 24 during the evening rush hour, it still had quite a few cars. The highway is one of Chattanooga’s main thoroughfares and runs from Tennessee to Marion, Illinois.

Cars inch down I-24 in Chattanooga around 6 pm on April 8.

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During my drive, I also saw a number of people out on walks. This is allowed under Tennessee’s safer-at-home order, as long you stay at least six feet away from others. However, most of Chattanooga’s most popular walking paths were closed by order of the mayor. Many have since reopened.

People exercise outside of the closed Hamilton Family YMCA in Chattanooga, TN, which has been closed on March 17.

Taylor Nicole Rogers/Business Insider

Source: YMCA of Metropolitan Chattanooga, WBIR Channel 10, Chattanooga Times Free Press

One of Chattanooga’s most popular outdoor spaces is Coolidge Park. It is home to a carousel, a splash pad, and boat slips for kayakers and paddle boarders. The park also frequently hosts concerts and other outdoor events.

The park is pictured here in 2011.

Chris McKay/Getty Images

Chattanooga Mayor Andy Burke closed the city’s parks and nonessential businesses with an executive order on April 2. At the time, Burke was only the second mayor in the state to do so. During my drive, I noticed caution tape blocked off the entrance to Coolidge Park.

Caution tape and barrels block off the entrance of a popular Chattanooga park.

Taylor Nicole Rogers/Business Insider

Source: The Chattanooga Times Free Press

Even the nearby Walnut Street Bridge, one of Chattanooga’s most iconic landmarks, was closed to pedestrians. The Bridge is always closed to car traffic but is normally open to pedestrians 24 hours a day.

The Bridge is one of Chattanooga’s most scenic walks.

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Normally the bridge has a steady stream of runners, walkers, bikers, and tourists strolling from one side of town to the other. That resumed when the bridge reopened on May 1.

The bridge is pictured here in 2010.

Jeff Greenberg / Contributor via Getty Images.

Source: Chattanooga Times Free Press

The closures didn’t stop people from walking and biking laps around the perimeter of Coolidge Park. Most kept their distance from each other and didn’t venture inside the park.

Technically, these people were not violating the “safer-at-home” order.

Taylor Nicole Rogers/Business Insider

Across the river from Coolidge Park, at Ross’ Landing, people lounged on the grass within feet of “park closed” signs.

When Ross’ Landing is open, it’s usually full of people taking in the riverfront view.

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Others rode bikes in the same closed park.

Two men walk their bikes in front of the Tennessee Aquarium after a ride on Riverside Drive in downtown Chattanooga.

Taylor Nicole Rogers/Business Insider

This part of the riverfront is usually packed with families playing together and people out on their runs or bike rides. When I drove by the closed river park on April 8, all I found were a few groups of people — who seemed to be heeding social distancing measures — posted up there alone with fishing poles.

The nearby boat landing was closed, making the sidewalk inside the closed park the best place for these people to fish.

Taylor Nicole Rogers/Business Insider

Maintaining social distancing guidelines was more difficult in Chattanooga’s grocery stores than parks.

I’ve never been to this Walmart when there wasn’t a crowd, including during the shutdown.

Taylor Nicole Rogers/Business Insider

A Walmart in Chattanooga made efforts to keep shoppers away from one another, including blocking off the entrance to prevent crowding …

In the past, I’ve seen people wait in this area to be picked up by cars.

Taylor Nicole Rogers/Business Insider

… and putting decals on the floor indicating where shoppers should stand in line.

The decals were spread throughout the store.

Taylor Nicole Rogers/Business Insider

People were asked to avoid touching surfaces, but that didn’t stop one customer I saw in the order pickup area. The woman was wearing scrubs, indicating that she may have come to the store from a health care facility.

The sign reads: “Attention customers. For your protection and that of our associates, please don’t touch the counter, table, or cart.”

Taylor Nicole Rogers/Business Insider

Meanwhile, in the baking aisle, shoppers passing each other couldn’t get more than six feet apart even if they wanted to.

Shoppers perusing the aisles of the grocery store.

Taylor Nicole Rogers/Business Insider

Other local businesses were more successful at keeping shoppers apart. Riverside Wine and Spirits set up a makeshift drive-thru so customers didn’t have to leave their cars.

The drive-thru has separate lanes for customers with new orders and those who’d called ahead.

Taylor Nicole Rogers/Business Insider

A Home Depot location also used handwritten signs to expand its curbside pickup program, despite having an essential business designation that allows it to stay open. The store only had two parking spots permanently allocated for its curbside pickup program.

The signs appeared to have been made by Home Depot associates who put wood planks into buckets of concrete.

Taylor Nicole Rogers/Business Insider

This Panera location also resorted to handmade signs to attract diners. The sign reads “OPEN Every day 7 a.m. – 8 p.m.”

There were several cars in the parking lot of this Panera location, indicating that the sign was working.

Taylor Nicole Rogers/Business Insider

This Chick-fil-a’s drive-thru line was short, however. Starting April 29, diners could once again eat inside.

The restaurant’s employees appeared to have used cones to add another lane to its drive-through.

Taylor Nicole Rogers/Business Insider

Since my drive, more businesses in Chattanooga have reopened. Scientists and public health officials have warned that easing most restrictions too early could potentially lead to a second wave of infections.

Chattanooga’s Frazier Avenue sits empty in early April.

Taylor Nicole Rogers/Business Insider

Source: AP News

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