How our foundation is helping iconic Chattanooga destinations weather COVID-19

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BCBST News Center, Amanda Haskew, Nov. 10, 2020

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues throughout Tennessee and across the country, many organizations are facing increased financial challenges.

Businesses and cultural institutions have been hit hard, as Americans are traveling less and decreasing visits to public places. BlueCross leadership recognizes the important role these organizations play in the health of our communities, as well as the severity of the uncertainty they’re facing, and our foundation is stepping up to support them.

The BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee Foundation is providing $400,000 to support four Chattanooga-based cultural institutions.

“The Tennessee Aquarium, Hunter Museum of American Art, Creative Discovery Museum and Bessie Smith Cultural Center are popular tourist attractions, but they’re also great destinations for residents here in Tennessee,” said Chelsea Johnson, BlueCross director of community relations. “They’ve been hit incredibly hard by COVID, and it’s important for us to support our neighbors and these organizations that are so important to Chattanooga.”

Here’s how each organization is planning to use its $100,000 gift:

The Tennessee Aquarium

A centerpiece of downtown Chattanooga, the Tennessee Aquarium supports more than 1,200 jobs and generates more than $6 million in tax revenue for the City of Chattanooga and Hamilton County.

Composed of two buildings along the Tennessee River, the aquarium opened in 1992 and is home to animals native to the American Southeast, as well as species from around the world.

Of course, due to COVID-19, visitor numbers have been down and revenue has taken a hit.

“2020 has been a challenging year, from our temporary closing in the spring to the steps we took to safely reopen — these were the right things to do; but they’ve had a profound impact on our finances, and it will take years to recover,” said Keith Sanford, the aquarium’s president and CEO.

“This support means the world to all of us who love the Tennessee Aquarium.”

The Hunter Museum of American Art

Perched above the Tennessee River in the city’s historic Bluff View Art District, the Hunter Museum of American Art is housed inside a 1905 Neoclassical-style mansion and two adjacent buildings. The permanent collection showcases American art and includes works from the famed Hudson River School, as well as contemporary art.

“Like so many organizations, the Hunter Museum was adversely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Virginia Anne Sharber, the museum’s executive director.

“Looking forward, we know that, until a vaccine is discovered, the sustainability of the museum will be challenged. With this very generous contribution to the museum’s Propel Past COVID campaign, BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee is making it possible for the museum to continue serving the community.”

The Creative Discovery Museum

Since it opened in 1995, the Creative Discovery Museum has been a premier destination for Chattanooga families and visitors to the city. Welcoming more than 250,000 people each year, the museum invites children to experience hands-on learning through exhibits like RiverPlay, Arts Alley and the Lookout Tower. It also reaches nearly 50,000 students through its educational outreach programs across the country annually.

“This incredible gift could not have come at a better time,” said Henry Schulson, executive director of the Creative Discovery Museum.

The Bessie Smith Cultural Center

Named for the “Empress of the Blues” and Chattanooga native Bessie Smith, the Bessie Smith Cultural Center is home to the Chattanooga African American Museum, which was originally established in 1983, and the Bessie Smith Performance Hall. The center works to preserve and celebrate African American history and culture in Chattanooga through art, education, research and entertainment. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Bessie Smith Cultural Center has been closed since March 16, and its revenue has been reduced by 75%. 

“This funding from the BlueCross Foundation allows us to continue bringing awareness to the impact early African Americans had on the growth of Chattanooga,” said Paula Wilkes, the center’s president.

“The grant will help improve the technology and exhibits within our museum and allow us the opportunity to provide virtual learning programs during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Continuing to support our neighbors

These gifts build on the BlueCross Foundation’s efforts to support our neighbors across Tennessee throughout the pandemic. In March, the foundation provided $3.25 million in funding to food banks across the state to help residents facing uncertainty about providing food for their families.

In September, the foundation provided $1.1 million for a statewide campaign encouraging Tennesseans to get the flu vaccine, which is especially important this year as flu season overlaps with the pandemic. The funding supported educational messaging about the importance of the vaccine and established drive-through flu shot clinics with provider partners in Jackson, Memphis, Murfreesboro and Nashville. The clinics are available to everyone, not just BlueCross members, and shots are free, while supplies last.

And BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee has worked diligently throughout the year to ensure our members can get the care they need. We’ve enhanced our member support throughout the COVID-19 pandemic by:

  • Waiving all member cost-sharing for COVID-19 treatments, including hospitalizations, from in-network providers until the end of the national emergency
  • Waiving member costs for any appropriate FDA-aligned test
  • Allowing early prescription refills and 90-day prescriptions to avoid increased risk of exposure
  • Sharing key public health information, such as promoting social distancing and warning of potential scam activity
  • Expanding telehealth care options, meaning our members can have a video or phone visit with their in-network providers who offer it, keeping them safer at home

For more on our response to COVID-19, see

Read on the BCBST News Center.

This story also appeared on the Chattanooga Times Free Press.