Erik Schelzig

Editor, The Tennessee Journal

Pressure mounts on Lee to issue statewide stay-at-home order

Gov. Bill Lee arrives for a press conference on the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic on March 16, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

With 71 of 95 Tennessee counties reporting confirmed coronavirus cases, the pressure is building on Gov. Bill Lee to declare a statewide stay-at-home order.

Lee has recommended that schools remain shut through April 24, banned statewide gatherings of more than 10 people, and required bars and restaurants to limit their business to takeout and delivery service. But while cities like Nashville, Memphis, Knoxville, and Chattanooga have told non-essential businesses to shutter amid the pandemic, Lee has declined to follow suit for the rest of the state.

That has set up a situation where businesses are closed inside the city and county lines where state-at-home orders are in place, but their counterparts can operate as normal if they are located just beyond those jurisdictions.

“Tennesseans have shut down,” Lee said at a press conference in Memphis on Friday. “This state is largely closed down except for the number of folks that are moving around for the appropriate reasons.”

But Lee acknowledged “that’s not true of every Tennessean.”

The state got some negative publicity when Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear, a Democrat, urged residents living near the state line not to venture into Tennessee.

“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. If you ultimately go down over that border and go to a restaurant or something that’s not open in Kentucky, what you do is you bring back the coronavirus here in Kentucky,” Beshear said. “And again the sacrifice that the people inside your county are making, ultimately you don’t honor by doing that.”

Critics noted that Tennessee not only has a larger population, but that the state has conducted far more coronavirus tests than Kentucky. And infection rates are similar.

Is the ‘party over’ for Gov. Bill Lee?

Gov. Bill Lee speaks at a press conference on Tennessee’s coronavirus response in Nashville on March 16, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Just weeks ago, Gov. Bill Lee and fellow Republicans who run the General Assembly were arguing about where to stash overflowing tax revenues. Everything has changed since the economic impact of the coronavirus has started coming into focus.

The governor has come under increasing pressure over his decision not to order a statewide shelter-in-place order — he’s instead left it to mayors in the state’s largest cities to issue their own guidance.

The Daily Memphian‘s Sam Stockard is positing that the “party’s over” for the new Lee administration as it grapples with the new realities:

While Lee and his new COVID-19 Unified Command have been working overtime amid a state of emergency and executive orders to provide financial support and stem the spread of a hardcore bug that isn’t even alive, some lawmakers say the state’s response has been scattered, at best, sending mixed messages to the public.

Physicians, meanwhile, call Lee “weak” on leadership for refusing to join about 20 other governors in declaring a statewide “safer at home” order to quell the severity of the pandemic.

Lee and other Republican leaders acknowledge the situation is “liquid” and that strategies can change daily, if not hourly, based on the latest information.

Read the rest of the article here.

Meanwhile, the Boston Globe looks into the blue/red divide when it comes to responding to the pandemic. The paper looked at the city of Bristol, which is famously divided between Virginia and Tennessee.

It was Saturday night on a main street in the South, but locals described something odd: One side of the street was almost normal, if quiet, with restaurants serving dinner and groups of young people milling around. The other side of the street looked practically vacant.

“There was no foot traffic on the left side,” recalled business owner Janet Atwell, 51.

Both sides of State Street are in cities called Bristol, but the left side is Virginia, the right side is Tennessee and the yellow line down the middle of the road is both a state border and a new frontier in this country’s uneven response to the coronavirus outbreak that often is breaking down along partisan lines.

The different scenes on either side of the pavement reflected the differing pace of the two state’s governors as they seek to contain the pandemic. On that Saturday night on March 21, Governor Ralph Northam of Virginia, a Democrat, had established stricter limits on public gatherings than Governor Bill Lee of Tennessee, a Republican. Since then, both governors have banned dining inside restaurants and public gatherings of more than 10 people, but Northam has ordered a larger swath of nonessential businesses to close.

Read the full article here.

Sethi: ‘Human lives will always be more important than dollars’

Republican U.S. Senate candidate Manny Sethi speaks at a campaign event in Clarksville on Feb. 4, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Republican U.S. Senate candidate Manny Sethi is outlining his plan to for economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic.

Sethi, a surgeon at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, said while it’s important to get Americans back to worth, “human lives will always be more important than dollars.”

“Our economy will not bounce back if portions of the workforce are seriously ill or do not survive,” he said.

Here’s the full release from the Sethi campaign:

NASHVILLE, Tenn – Conservative outsider and Republican candidate for Senate, Dr. Manny Sethi released his plan to get America back to work today. Dr. Manny, founder of a public health advocacy nonprofit in Tennessee, believes our country can get people back to work and protect the health of Americans at the same time, but it must be done in a thoughtful and deliberate way.

We saw unemployment numbers reach record numbers this morning. In the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, much of the American economy has been shut down, hurting American workers, businesses, and families in a way we haven’t seen before.

This morning 3.28 million new claims were announced, which is already higher than any past economic crisis, including the 2008 market collapse and the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Previously, the highest number of jobless claims was 695,000 in 1982.

While economic revitalization is imperative, human lives will always be more important than dollars. On Thursday, Dr. Manny released the following statement and plan:

“Tennessee is still dealing with this issue, but at some point America cannot sustain a long, drawn-out shutdown. We must start working immediately on ways to get our citizens back to work and our economy moving. Our economy will not bounce back if portions of the workforce are seriously ill or do not survive. In the operating room, when things are moving fast, I’ve learned we have to slow down and think through the best way forward, instead of overreacting.

“I would recommend tackling this region by region, state by state, community  by community. This is not a one-size-fits-all solution for the whole country. Some communities and states will recover from this virus breakout sooner than others. As the threat lessens, these areas need to start lifting restrictive mandates and get their economy back to work.”

Dr. Manny’s proposal to get America back-to-work entails:

  • Federal authorities should work with states to identify when it is safe for individual communities to start lifting mandates once the health threat decreases in their respective areas.
    U.S. health officials should also work with state governments to assess quarantine and containment strategies based on evolving evidence.
  • Companies should be encouraged to continue to utilize telecommuting as much as possible. This will slow the rate of return back to the public workplace. Tax credits and other incentives should be provided to incentivize companies to put the health and safety of employees first, without losing their business.
  • Utilize the Defense Production Act, if needed, to produce medical equipment such masks, gowns, and ventilators. Pass legislation that gives American companies incentives to produce such equipment in the United States.
  • Immediately begin to shift production of Chinese and foreign-made pharmaceuticals to the United States. This is a national security issue, and there is an immediate need for many important drugs to be produced here, and a need to immediately phase-in production of many others.
  • Continue to implement international travel bans and strongly caution Americans to avoid non-essential domestic travel until national health officials approve.

Hagerty event with Kudlow postponed

Republican U.S. Senate candidate Bill Hagerty’s tele-town hall with Larry Kudlow has been postponed because of the national economic council director’s role in hammering out a compromise over the coronavirus relief package in Congress.

The event is expected to be rescheduled for a later date.

 

Timothy Hill running for Congress in 1st District

Rep. Timothy Hill (R-Blountville) confers with House Speaker Beth Harwell (R-Nashville) March 29, 2018. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

State Rep. Timothy Hill of Blountville is running for the congressional seat being vacated by retiring U.S. Rep. Phil Roe (R-Johnson City).

Hill joins a field of Republican candidates that includes former Kingsport Mayor John Clark, state Sen. Rusty Crowe of Johnson City,  former Johnson City Mayor Steve Darden, and Kingsport pharmacist Diana Harshbarger.

Here’s the release from the Hill campaign:

BLOUNTVILLE, Tenn. — State Representative Timothy Hill today announced that he will be a candidate for Congress in Tennessee’s 1st district. Hill released the following statement:

“This district is strongly Republican, but it is critical that our nominee also be a proven conservative who will be a stalwart ally of President Trump against radicals like Nancy Pelosi and AOC. When it comes to supporting our conservative values my record is second to none- I’ve been a leading voice in Tennessee for the unborn, for our second amendment rights, and against tax hikes. As your member of Congress I’ll continue the fight for those same values, put people first, and I’ll support President Trump’s agenda 100%, especially the fight to build the wall and recover quickly from the Chinese Coronavirus.”

Hill has represented Johnson County and parts of Carter and Sullivan County since 2012. He currently serves as chairman of the House Commerce Committee and previously served in leadership as House Majority Whip. Representative Hill has been recognized by a number of conservative organizations for his leadership including a ranking of 3rd Most Conservative Legislator out of 132 members by the Club for Growth and the highest recognition for Conservative Excellence by the American Conservative Union.

To guide his campaign, Hill has hired Mike Lukach who served as a state director for President Trump’s 2016 campaign and later served in his administration.

Timothy Hill is a small business owner and dedicated family man. Timothy is a 7th generation East Tennessean, and he reside in Blountville with his wife Charity their two sons and their bulldog Winston.

Lee extends school closure recommendation, corporate tax filing deadline

Gov. Bill Lee speaks at a press conference on Tennessee’s coronavirus response in Nashville on March 16, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Gov. Bill Lee is extending his recommended school closure period to April 24 amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

The Republican governor also announced Tuesday that the state’s deadline for filing corporate franchise and excise taxes will be extended from April to July 15.

State workers who have been working from home have been instructed to keep doing so until April 24. They had previously been scheduled to return to work at the end of the month. About 23,000 state employees have been working from home.

The governor mobilized the National Guard to assist with the state’s pandemic response. Lee said 250 guard members have been called up, including 150 who are medically trained. They will be assigned to assist with 35 remote assessment sights around the state as the virus spreads to more rural counties.

Hagerty to hold telephone town hall with Trump economic adviser Kudlow

Republican U.S. Senate candidate Bill Hagerty speaks at Nashville event on Dec. 3, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Republican U.S. Senate candidate Bill Hagerty is holding a telephone town hall on Wednesday with with Larry Kudlow, the national economic council director for President Donald Trump.

Here’s the release from the Hagerty campaign:

Nashville, TN — As our nation’s leaders continue to prevent the spread of the Wuhan coronavirus, Bill Hagerty, candidate for U.S. Senate, announced today he will be hosting a telephone town hall with President Trump’s National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow to talk about the Wuhan coronavirus and our nation’s economy. The telephone town hall will be held on Wednesday, March 25th at 11:30 am EST/10:30 am CST.

“I am honored National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow will be able to answer questions from Tennesseans on how the administration is working to stabilize our economy and help small businesses, employees, and families in the weeks ahead,” said Bill Hagerty. “Director Kudlow is well-known for his commitment to cutting taxes and repealing burdensome regulations. In the Senate, I will work with Director Kudlow and President Trump to ensure our Tennessee businesses have the resources they need to expand and create jobs once this foreign virus is eradicated.”

National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow continued, “Under President Trump’s leadership, our economy reached new highs and unemployment set record lows which has put the administration in a strong position to provide assistance and help to alleviate financial stress for small businesses and families as we all work to prevent the spread of the Wuhan coronavirus. The Administration is working hard to help Tennesseans recover from deadly storms, prevent the spread of the coronavirus and alleviate financial stress for your small businesses and families. I look forward to answering your questions with my friend Bill Hagerty who has the complete and total endorsement of President Trump. We need him in the Senate.”

Hagerty earned President Trump’s “complete and total” endorsement to be Tennessee’s next United States Senator while serving as the U.S. Ambassador to Japan. To learn more about Bill Hagerty, visit  www.teamhagerty.com.

Lee names McWhorter to head ‘unified command’ on Tennessee coronavirus response

Finance Commissioner Stuart McWhorter presents budget cuts to the Senate Finance Committee on March 18, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee has named Finance Commissioner Stuart McWhorter to head a new “unified command” on the state’s response to the coronavirus crisis.

McWhorter,who will step aside from his role as head of the Department of Finance and Administration to take on the new role, named retired Army Brig. Gen. Scott Bower as his chief of staff. Bower is a former acting commander of the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell.

Here’s the full release from Gov. Bill Lee’s office:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Today, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee established the COVID-19 Unified Command, a joint effort to be led by Commissioner Stuart McWhorter, to streamline coordination across the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency (TEMA), Tennessee Department of Health and Tennessee Department of Military.

“The COVID-19 pandemic challenges every aspect of traditional government response in a crisis,” said Gov. Lee. “I have appointed the Unified Command to effectively change the way we attack COVID-19 in Tennessee as we work to simultaneously address health, economic and supply crises.”

Commissioner Stuart McWhorter currently heads the Tennessee Department of Finance and Administration and will leave this post to head the COVID-19 Unified Command. McWhorter appointed retired Brig. Gen. Scott Brower to serve as chief of staff for the operation.

“Gen. Brower’s special forces background and previous service as the Acting Senior Commander for the 101st Airborne Division has enabled him to pull leaders together and troubleshoot quickly in a crisis,” said McWhorter. “Gov. Lee has urged our team to challenge every barrier and assembling this team is the first step.”

Brower resides in Clarksville and most recently served as the military advisor in residence to the president of Austin Peay State University. The COVID-19 Unified Command also includes:

  • Patrick Sheehan, TEMA Director
  • Dr. Lisa Piercey, Commissioner, Tennessee Department of Health
  • Maj. Gen. Jeff Holmes, Adjutant General, Tennessee Department of Military

Lee orders statewide ban on gatherings of more than 10 and on dine-in restaurants, bars

Gov. Bill Lee speaks at a press conference on Tennessee’s coronavirus response in Nashville on March 16, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Gov. Bill Lee has issued a statewide ban on gatherings of more than 10 people and  ordered all restaurants be limited only to drive-thru or takeout service.

Restaurants that serve alcohol will be allowed to sell alcohol for off-premise consumption under the oder.  Gyms and fitness centers will also be ordered closed.

The executive order runs from Monday through April 6.

Meanwhile, Nashville Mayor John Cooper has issued a “Safer at Home” policy for the city that requires all non-essential businesses to close their doors. As of Sunday morning, Nashville had 179 residents who had contracted COVID-19, with those between ages 18 and 49 making up nearly 70% of the cases.

Under guidance issued by the Metro Nashville Department of Public Health:

YOU CAN … 

  • Go to the grocery, convenience or warehouse store
  • Go to the pharmacy to pick up medications and other healthcare necessities
  • Go to medical appointments (check with your doctor or provider first)
  • Go to a restaurant for take-out, delivery or drive-thru
  • Care for or support a friend or family member
  • Take a walk, ride your bike, hike, jog and be in nature for exercise — just keep at least six feet between you and others.
  • Walk your pets and take them to the veterinarian if necessary
  • Help someone to get necessary supplies
  • Receive deliveries from any business which delivers

YOU SHOULD NOT … 

  • Go to work unless you are providing essential services as defined by this Order
  • Visit friends and family if there is no urgent need
  • Maintain less than 6 feet of distance from others when you go out
  • Visit loved ones in the hospital, nursing home, skilled nursing facility or other residential care facility, except for limited exceptions as provided on the facility websites.

Is this Order mandatory? What happens if I don’t comply?

Yes. This is a legally enforceable order.

The governor’s full release is after the jump.

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House, Senate pass barebones budget

The state Capitol has been closed to visitors since March 16, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Both chambers of the Tennessee General Assembly have passed a barebones budget for the upcoming fiscal year. The spending plan projects no economic growth and required the deep reductions from Republican Gov. Bill Lee’s original proposal.

Democratic efforts to eliminate about $40 million to start up the governor’s school voucher program failed.

Lee was on hand to watch the the budget debate in the House and Senate.