Bill Lee

Lee to community newspapers: ‘In this battle, heroes stay home’

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 in a conference call with community newspapers thanked the publications for providing key information about the state’s coronavirus response to their readerships.

“We are in a war,” Lee said in the call, according to the Buffalo River Review. “And in this battle, heroes stay home.”

Lee said the administration was working to provide personal protective equipment to rural communities and looking for ways increase the number of healthcare workers to prepare for a surge in coronavirus cases.

“Tennesseans can help with that surge by staying at home,” Lee said. “We are the leading state for testing per capita, and the most aggressive in testing nationwide.”

Lee acknowledged the “overwhelming impact” the virus has had on tourism around the state.

“Business owners are bearing the brunt of the safer at home order,” Lee said. “In the short term it is incredibly painful, but know that I understand them and hear them, and will do everything we can to help them.”

Lee announces $10M in grants for rural hospitals

Gov. Bill Lee welcomes delegates to a summit on economically distressed counties in Linden on Aug. 13, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Gov. Bill Lee has announced $10 million in grants to help small and rural hospitals struggling due to the coronavirus pandemic. The grants will be capped at $500,000 per hospital to help cover financial losses due to a ban on elective procedures.

Here’s the release from the governor’s office:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. –  Today, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee announced the State of Tennessee will allocate $10 million in Small and Rural Hospital Readiness Grants to support hospitals that are facing financial strain due to the ongoing response to COVID-19.

“Small and rural hospitals are critical to fighting COVID-19 and these grants will help complement federal aid dollars to ensure hospitals can continue delivering care through this crisis,” said Gov. Lee. “These organizations not only provide care for existing needs but are also a key part of our efforts to build and maintain bed capacity during the expected surge of COVID-19 cases.” 

The funds, capped at $500,000 per hospital, will be allocated from the state’s FY20 COVID-19 response appropriation and distributed by the Department of Finance & Administration.

For participating hospitals, the grants will serve as a bridge over the coming weeks while elective procedures are suspended and new federal funds are still processing. Applications are live today and can be accessed here: https://www.tn.gov/ecd/rural-development/small-and-rural-hospital-readiness-grant.

Due to the continually developing nature of the pandemic, the application will be held open for a month or until funds are expended.

Tennessee to shutter all 56 state parks

A workout area is taped off in Nashville due to the coronavirus pandemic on April 2, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

All 56 state parks and natural areas will be closed to the public for 10 days starting Saturday in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

“We decided to close the parks in support of Governor Lee’s Executive Order 23,” state Department of Environment and Conservation Commissioner David Salyers said in a release. “The health and safety of Tennessee citizens is all of our top priority right now.”

The decision follows Gov. Bill Lee’s executive order on Thursday requiring Tennesseans to stay at home for all but essential activities.

From urging to requiring: Lee makes stay-at-home mandatory

Source: Gov. Bill Lee’s office.

Gov. Bill Lee is ramping up his stay-at-home directive, moving from urging people to avoid all non essential activities to requiring it. The move follows an uptick in traffic and movement around the state.

Here’s the full release from the governor’s office:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. –  Tennessee Governor Bill Lee will sign Executive Order 23 requiring that Tennesseans stay home unless they are carrying out essential activities as data shows an increase in citizen movement across the state.

“Over the last few weeks, we have seen decreases in movement around the state as Tennesseans socially distance and stay at home,” said Gov. Lee. “However, in recent days we have seen data indicating that movement may be increasing and we must get these numbers trending back down. I have updated my previous executive order to clearly require that Tennesseans stay at home unless they are carrying out essential activities.”

Data from the Tennessee Department of Transportation analyzed traffic patterns for March 2020. While safer at home measures and further restrictions on businesses showed a steep drop-off in vehicle movement from March 13-29, data beginning on March 30 indicates travel is trending upwards, again.

The Administration also analyzed data from Unacast to understand cell phone mobility and determine movement trends among people. Unacast indicates the movement of Tennesseans is trending toward pre-COVID-19 levels.

“The month of April stands to be an extremely tough time for our state as we face the potential for a surge in COVID-19 cases,” said Lee. “Every Tennessean must take this seriously, remain at home and ensure we save lives.”

The executive order remains in effect until April 14, 2020 at 11:59 p.m. Gov. Lee will address these measures in the press briefing today at 3 p.m. CDT.

Lee warns lawmakers of ‘surge’ in coronavirus hospitalizations

Gov. Bill Lee is warning state lawmakers  a “surge” in coronavirus infections could overwhelm the state’s healthcare system in the next two to four weeks.

Lee made his comments in a conference call with lawmakers on Wednesday. The Daily Memphian reports that Lee’s “unified command” is basing its efforts to respond to the crisis on modeling of the outbreak.

“We know based on modeling we’re looking at that we will have a bed shortage, both with hospital beds as well as ICU beds. We’re taking that very seriously,” Stuart McWhorter, the head of the governor’s task force on COVID-19 said during the call. “We’re looking at the best data we have right now to try to look at what Tennessee will look like over the next two to four weeks and taking it very seriously.”

So what’s essential? A look at Gov. Bill Lee’s executive order

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

Here are the details about which businesses are exempted by Gov. Bill Lee’s order for non-essential operations to shut down to help stop the spread of the coronavirus. It’s a long list, ranging from marinas to dry cleaners. It also includes “any other business or organization that operates at all times with ten or fewer persons accessing the premises.”

Here’s the full breakdown:

For purposes of Executive Order No. 22, Essential Services include:

1. Personnel identified on pages 5-15 of the Memorandum on Identification of Essential Critical Infrastructure Workers During COVID-19 Response issued by the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) of the United States Department of Homeland Security

2. Health Care and Public Health Operations. This includes, but is not limited to: hospitals; clinics; medical practices and services; mental health and substance abuse services; dental offices; pharmacies; public health entities, including those that compile, model, analyze, and communicate public health information; pharmaceutical, pharmacy, medical device and equipment, and biotechnology companies (including operations, research and development, manufacture, and supply chain components); organizations collecting blood, platelets, plasma, and other necessary materials; obstetricians and gynecologists; eye care centers, including those that sell glasses and contact lenses; home health care services providers; mental health and substance use providers; other health care facilities and suppliers; providers of any related and/or ancillary health care services; entities that transport and dispose of medical materials and remains; manufacturers, technicians, logistics, and warehouse operators, and distributors of medical equipment, personal protective equipment (PPE), medical gases, pharmaceuticals, blood, platelets, and plasma products, vaccines, testing materials, laboratory supplies, cleaning, sanitizing, disinfecting or sterilization supplies, and tissue and paper towel products; veterinary care and all health care services provided to animals. This also includes any medical or administrative personnel necessary to operate those functions in this paragraph. Health Care and Public Health Operations shall be construed broadly to avoid any impacts to the delivery of health care, broadly defined. Health Care and Public Health Operations does not include any procedures that would violate Executive Order No. 18, which remains in effect;

3. Human Services Operations. This includes, but is not limited to: government or government-funded human services to the public through state-operated, institutional, or community-based settings; long-term care facilities; day care centers, day care homes, or group day care homes; residential settings and shelters for adults, seniors, children, or people with developmental disabilities, intellectual disabilities, substance use disorders, or mental illness; transitional facilities; home-based settings to provide services to individuals with physical, intellectual, or developmental disabilities, seniors, adults, or children; field offices that provide and help to determine eligibility for basic needs including food, cash assistance, medical coverage, child care, vocational services, rehabilitation services; developmental centers; adoption agencies; businesses that provide food, shelter, social services, and other necessities of life for economically disadvantaged individuals, individuals with physical, intellectual, and/or developmental disabilities, or individuals otherwise in need. Human Services 7 Operations shall be construed broadly to avoid any impacts to the delivery of human services, broadly defined;

4. Essential Infrastructure Operations. This includes, but is not limited to: food production, distribution, and sale; construction-related services, including, but not limited to, construction required in response to this public health emergency, hospital construction, construction of long-term care facilities, public works construction, school construction, construction related to Essential Activity or Essential Services, and housing construction; building management and maintenance; landscape management; airport operations; operation and maintenance of utilities, including water, sewer, and gas; electrical services, including power generation, distribution, and production of raw materials; distribution centers; oil and biofuel refining; services related to roads, highways, railroads, ports, and public transportation; cybersecurity operations; flood control; solid waste and recycling collection, removal, and processing; and internet, video, and telecommunications systems and services, including the provision of essential global, national, and local infrastructure for computing services, business infrastructure, communications, and web-based services. Essential Infrastructure Operations shall be construed broadly to avoid any impacts to essential infrastructure, broadly defined;

5. Essential Government Functions. This includes, but is not limited to: first responders, emergency management personnel, emergency dispatchers, and those supporting 911 and emergency services; legislators and legislative branch officials and employees, as determined by the Legislative Branch; judges, judicial branch employees, court personnel, jurors, and grand jurors, as determined by the Judicial Branch; law enforcement personnel; corrections and community supervision personnel; hazardous materials responders; election officials and operations; child protection and child welfare personnel; housing and shelter personnel; park personnel that provide admission, maintenance, and operation of park facilities that provide outdoor recreation; military; and other governmental employees working for or to support Essential Activity or Essential Services. Essential Government Functions also means all services provided by the State, the political subdivisions of the State, and boards, commissions, or agencies of government needed to ensure the continuing operation of the government agencies or to provide for or support the health, safety, and welfare of the public. Essential Government Functions also includes contractors performing or supporting such functions. Each branch of government and government entity shall determine its Essential Government Functions and ensure a plan is in place for the performance of these functions. This paragraph does not apply to the United States government; provided, however, that any employee, official, or contractor of the United States government shall not be restricted from performing their functions under law;

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Lee orders nonessential businesses to close statewide

Gov. Bill Lee speaks at the state Capitol on Sept. 16, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Gov. Bill Lee has ordered nonessential businesses to close their doors around the state in response to the coronavirus pandemic in Tennessee.

Lee had resisted calling for business closures around the state even while urban areas like Memphis, Nashville, Knoxville, Chattanooga, and others had already taken those steps.

The move comes after 100 people at a Gallatin nursing home were hospitalized and two died amid a COVID-19 outbreak there. Sumner County’s confirmed coronavirus cases jumped to 179.

The governor’s previous executive orders required restaurants to limit themselves to takeout and delivery, shut down gyms, and banned gatherings of more than 10 people.

Lee was joined by House Speaker Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville) and Senate Speaker Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge) at the announcement. Here’s a statement from McNally:

From the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, Governor Lee has been deliberate and careful in his approach. This threat changes from day-to-day, hour-to-hour and minute-to-minute. I appreciate Governor Lee’s ability to remain data-focused and flexible. Today’s order is a big step but a needed one at this time. Most population centers in our state are already operating under these conditions. Essential businesses like grocery stores and pharmacies will remain open. The most important part of this order is that it sends the message the governor has been sending for many days now in no uncertain terms: stay home and stay apart.

Voucher applications go live amid coronavirus crisis

Applications are going live for the state’s new school voucher program amid the ongoing coronavirus crisis that has caused public schools to close their doors for several weeks.

Applications for the education savings accounts, or ESAs, will be accepted through April 29 — five days after Gov. Bill Lee’s current recommendation for schools to remain closed.

Lee caught many lawmakers off guard when he announced he would seek to launch the voucher program this coming August rather than wait to do so in 2021, a non-election year. But he nonetheless pressed ahead this year, even while making deep cuts to other proposed new programs amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Here’s a video explaining the applications process:

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.