PIGEON FORGE, Tenn. — As small recreation businesses like mini-golf, arcades and go-kart tracks are allowed to reopen in Tennessee Friday and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park set to open on Saturday, the state's top tourism official is meeting with officials and business owners in Sevier County.
Mark Ezell, commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development, said it was important that business owners are educated on proper safety guidelines to keep both workers and visitors safe.
"We do anticipate a lot of folks wanting to come to Tennessee. It's such a great place in a beautiful state," Ezell said. "And what we want to make sure is that we're ready as those customers come in to help them observe social distancing, seeing that our people are wearing masks and are observing the sanitation pieces that are important for public safety."
Tourism is essentially important to the economy of towns like Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg. Thousands of people who work in the hospitality industry in the state have been out of work because of the coronavirus pandemic, so leaders think it is critical to allow those businesses to open back up and allow visitors to return, as long as it's done safely.
"That's why it was important for Tennessee to be one of the first states to open back parts of their economy and restaurant and retail," he said.
The small recreation attractions that line the Parkway in Pigeon Forge can open up at 50% capacity on Friday while limiting groups to no larger than ten people so safe social distancing can be maintained.
Restaurants, retail, and lodging businesses have already reopened under the guidelines issued in the Tennessee Pledge.
Ezell said he is confident that the business owners in Sevier County will adhere to the guidelines to keep people safe.
"I think we got a group that is ready to do it the safe way," Ezell said, noting that the businesses in Sevier County are used to handling a lot of customers.
"And we are seeing that they want to make sure they're taking the steps with their workers, and get ready for the customers," he said. "To wear masks, to have the proper sanitation, to observe social distancing, just to make sure we're ready as people became to come into the county."
While masks are not required of visitors, Ezell said they hoped visitors and customers would wear them to help slow the spread of COVID-19.
In Gatlinburg, local officials shut down the outside lanes of the Parkway through part of downtown for the weekend and blocked them off for pedestrians. When the city reopened last week, many parts of the sidewalk were overcrowded, making social distancing impossible in those areas.
Many of the most popular areas of the Smokies will reopen on Saturday, with park officials encouraging everyone to maintain social distancing even as they enjoy the great outdoors.
Ezell said it wasn't clear yet if local distilleries with alcohol tastings would be allowed to reopen right away, though he praised those businesses for converting some of their operations to making hand sanitizer.
Large attractions, like Dollywood, dinner theaters, Ripley's Aquarium, and more have not yet reopened. Ezell said that would likely happen in the second phase of the Tennessee Pledge.