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'We want you to come' | Sevier County leaders say they're working daily to balance tourism with safety

Sevier County's economy relies heavily on tourism. As Tennessee reopens, local leaders are tasked with making sure it goes safely.

SEVIER COUNTY, Tenn — Sevier County Mayor Larry Waters has been in office longer than the title of "mayor" has been around. It's been 41 years since he was first elected as county executive in 1978. 

"I've seen seen a lot of different, but I've never experienced anything quite like we've had for the last few months," Waters told 10News. "I never imagined we'd have anything like that to deal with."

For more than a month, a county that relies heavily on tourism was telling visitors to stay away. The Great Smoky Mountains National park was closed, reporting just 96,290 visitors in April 2020 from the Foothills Parkway.

In 2019, GSMNP had welcomed nearly a million visitors in April. Many of those visitors stay, eat and/or shop in the neighboring towns. 

"They were ahead of [last year's visitation] this year, which is just an incredible opening for [2020]," Congressman Phil Roe (TN-01) said. "Literally overnight, that all stopped."

As Tennessee gradually relaxes its restrictions on businesses, Sevier County restaurants, shops and attractions have started opening their doors.

City and county leaders are meeting daily in hopes that tourists will come if they're comfortable.

"We do want you to come and enjoy the mountains," Mayor Waters said. "We want you to know that we're going to do everything we can to make your stay here enjoyable and safe."

Leon Downey, executive director of the Pigeon Forge Department of Tourism, said they resumed advertisements in nine media markets as of Monday.

"It's more of a top of mind awareness campaign to let people know that we're here," Downey said. "Every destination in America is going through the same things we are right now, so we have to have our name out there."

At the same time, the Tourism Department is working closely with businesses to make sure they understand and follow the Tennessee Pledge guidelines.

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Downey hopes visitors will do the same.

"They have a responsibility to travel as safely as possible... Our businesses have an obligation to be as safe as possible, and that's what we can do," Downey said. "Everybody has to use their best judgment in this thing."

Small non-contact attractions, restaurants and retail shops are all allowed to open with restrictions in 89 Tennessee counties, including Sevier County.

On its first weekend back open, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park documented visitors from 26 states and Washington, D.C., a sign things are starting to pick back up. 

That's good for the region's economic recovery, but can be risky if visitors don't follow public health guidelines.

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"We certainly welcome visitors here, but [visitors] that behave responsibly and and socially distance and wear masks where appropriate," Congressman Roe said. "How the virus got in here to start was with somebody coming from the outside in."

Credit: WBIR
Gatlinburg closed the outer lanes to encourage social distancing.

Gatlinburg's Mayor was not available for comment on Thursday, but a spokesperson for the city said they will be closing the outer lanes of the Parkway again as a "sidewalk extension" to encourage social distancing.

Gatlinburg will also be increasing signage to inform visitors and guests about the extra space, as well as placing large banners and signage reminding them about CDC recommendations. 

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