In the first week of March, Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke ’86 realized that a little-known disease could have a destructive effect on his city. “I saw leaders on the West Coast beginning to grapple with the problem, and it seemed like it was going to be dealt with, at least initially, on the state and local level,” said the mayor.
Berke followed national press early on and was struck by a New York Times tracker that showed the exponential daily growth of COVID-19 due to inaction. “It compelled me to think we needed to act quickly here.” He closed more types of businesses here at an earlier date than his counterparts in Memphis, Nashville, and Knoxville. “As of May 1, Hamilton County, the fourth largest county in our state, had only 1.4% of the state’s cases,” he said. “That shows that physical distancing works.”
When he established Chattanooga’s state of emergency, Berke immediately made his Senior Policy Advisor the internal point person. He also ordered his six-person senior staff to meet daily to review local policies and statistics and recommend appropriate actions. Handling emergencies was not new for Berke. During his two terms as mayor, he and his team were faced with a domestic terrorism attack, the Woodmore bus crash, and a water outage in 97-degree heat.
Before the unexpected occurred in Berke’s final term, Forbes had predicted that Chattanooga would be the city with the nation’s highest job growth. “The thing that’s discouraging is that this [the city’s financial challenges] is going to fill my last year, and I won’t be the one to lead the path out of it.” Berke assumes that the virus, and not only its fallout, will be present for at least the rest of his term. “If I’m wrong about that, nobody will be happier than me.”