Coronavirus Is Building an Invisible Border Wall Between Kentucky and Tennessee

Hunter Woodall
Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast / Photos Getty

Tennessee is so close that it can feel almost like family to Donna Blake. 

But that hasn’t stopped the Republican, who serves as mayor of Adairville minutes away from Kentucky’s border with Tennessee, from being supportive of her Democratic governor’s urging to largely stay away from their southern neighbor. 

It was the only thing the governor could do under the circumstances, she said. 

“We’re good neighbors with Tennessee, and I hate that it’s come to that,” Blake said.  

By last Friday, a lack of action to the south triggered concerns for Democratic Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear who openly criticized Tennessee’s handling of the virus during a press briefing. 

“If you are a Kentuckian living on that border, I need you to not go to Tennessee for anything other than work or helping a loved one or maybe the grocery if it is there closer,” Beshear said. “I cannot control that Tennessee has not taken the steps that we have.”

By Monday, Beshear had issued an executive order calling on residents “not to travel” to another state except in crucial cases. 

“I hope it doesn't cause any tension between the states,” Blake said. “I’d hate for this thing to explode like that and maybe cause the tensions.” 

That warmness towards Kentucky’s approach wasn’t necessarily shared across the state line. 

“That sounds like something that happens during basketball and football season,” Ken Moore, the mayor of Franklin, Tennessee, said of the emerging rift.  

Beshear’s move was among the most recent examples in a trend of tense dynamics playing out between state leaders during the coronavirus pandemic.  

Across the United States, governors have ordered measures aimed at helping their states contain the coronavirus. School and business closings and government-ordered lockdowns have painted an increasingly gloomy picture of the pandemic, putting more pressure on governors to manage an unprecedented situation. 

Yet some actions have increased stress between state leaders over how far their respective executive actions should reach, sometimes pitting red versus blue, but also scrambling party alliances that normally bind politicians together, leaving some residents caught between leaders trying to protect their citizens, even if that means directly rebuking another state. 

Hard hit New York has been the target of a swath of protectionist measures by both blue and red states trying to avoid worsening their outbreaks at home.  The most recent came Monday, when Vermont Gov. Phil Scott directed people coming from “COVID-19 hot spots,” like Florida, Louisiana, and New York City to avoid traveling to his state. 

That directive followed an order from Rhode Island’s governor last week targeting New York residents who “may be heading for refuge”  there. That order was swiftly criticized, before it was broadened to include people entering from any state. 

Another surreal scene played out in Florida over the weekend, where News4JAX reported an interstate backup at the Florida-Georgia border because of a checkpoint focused on people from New York City’s metropolitan area. 

"It's startling because Americans aren't used to being told you shouldn't cross state borders," said Tom Birkland, a public policy professor at North Carolina State University, "The idea that crossing from one state into another implies some sort of risk is really odd to a lot of people." 

The coronavirus pandemic has led to an uneven mixture of state and local decisions aimed at containing the virus, causing frustrations and confusion in a situation that continues to escalate while the numbers of cases and deaths grow. 

Dr. Jeffrey Klausner, a professor of medicine and public health at UCLA, said he's concerned about the overall panic, including from politicians who he said are putting in interventions that aren't evidence based. 

"The new reality is that we have public health interventions being led by politicians," Klausner said. "And the real question is, where are the public health people? Where is the CDC? Where are the state public health officials?"   

Even as President Donald Trump embraced an Easter deadline to re-open the country, which he has since backed away from, governors have continued to take more aggressive statewide measures in a mixture of both red and blue states. 

In others, like Tennessee, calls to action grew loud before specific statewide intervention took place and Tennessee’s Republican Gov. Bill Lee announced a statewide “safer at home order” on Monday.

“This is not a mandated shelter in place order,” Lee said. “Because it's deeply important to me that we remain a state that protects personal liberties. But it is a strong urging for Tennesseans to stay home when at all possible, because I also believe that with personal liberty comes personal responsibility.” 

Stay-at-home orders have become common nationwide in an effort to contain the virus, though some state leaders have been reluctant to take such sweeping statewide action

On the Kentucky/Tennessee border, there are signs that resentments could linger over Beshear’s words because of how closely tied some residents’ lives are to freely moving back and forth across the state borders. 

“I’m a border town right next to Tennessee and I have a lot of friends across the line and I really prefer not to make a comment about that,” Larry Dixon, the mayor of Franklin, Kentucky said. 

In Lafayette, Tennessee, the words from Beshear stung for Mayor Richard Driver. 

Bowling Green, Kentucky is a major destination for his residents, but Driver said it’s “a two-way street.” At the top of the Republican’s mind was the amount of revenue Tennesseans who work and shop in Kentucky give the state. It made him wonder if in the future, the Kentucky governor’s words will cause people to go shopping and dining south instead of traveling to the north. 

“If they think the governor of Kentucky kind of slapped us in the face, they might decide to not buy anything in Kentucky for a while,” he said. 

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