Bill Lee

Governor’s office releases gym reopening guidelines

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

Gov. Bill Lee’s Economic Recovery Group has released its guidance for gyms to start opening around the state on Friday. Shelby, Davidson, Knox, Hamilton, Sullivan and Madison have the power to make their own decisions about reopening schedules locally, though most have been matching state policy.

Here’s the full release:

Nashville, Tenn. — Today, Tennessee’s Economic Recovery Group announced guidance for gyms and exercise facilities on how to reopen safely. Gyms will be allowed to reopen in 89 of the state’s 95 counties beginning Friday, May 1. The counties excluded are those with locally-run health departments: Shelby, Madison, Davidson, Hamilton, Knox, and Sullivan.

“Exercise is incredibly important for the physical and mental health of our population, and we want Tennesseans to have access to safe environments where they can exercise as appropriate,” said Tennessee Governor Bill Lee. “These guidelines outline best practices in keeping with recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and health experts for gyms to reopen in a way that will keep their employees and customers safe.”

In addition to strict adherence to CDC guidelines, the State recommends gyms, fitness/exercise facilities, or substantially similar facilities and activities put into place an assortment of measures to protect consumers and employees. The full guidelines are posted online here and include:

Business Process Adaptations

  • Restrict facility access to staffed hours only (i.e., any unmanned facilities must be manned) and limit facility occupancy to 50 percent of capacity as dictated by fire code (as such capacity is adjusted in consideration of closed areas of the facility pursuant to these guidelines);
  • Mitigate exposure in the workplace by implementing social distancing guidelines and modify scheduling;
  • Staff to conduct regular (i.e., every 2 hours) disinfecting of high-touch surfaces, equipment and common areas of the facility using disinfectant cleaning supplies according to CDC guidelines;
  • Close showers, locker rooms, and lockers until further notice. Ask customers to instead use small gym bags to store personal belongings; remind customers to appropriately monitor or secure such personal belongs or provide a secure area monitored by staff;
  • Close all swimming pools, hot tubs, saunas and other recreational water or spa facilities;
  • Close all basketball courts, racquetball courts, and other places where formal and informal group or team sports may occur;
  • Any youth or adult team leagues or sports should remain closed;
  • Only allow group fitness classes if classes can be completed in accordance with social distancing recommendations (including but not limited to: less than 50% capacity and with more than 6 feet of distance maintained between participants at all times; no shared equipment during the class; sufficiently adjusted class schedules to allow for deep cleaning between classes; martial arts and other contact activities should be completed without any person-to-person contact);
  • Encourage all employees and customers to wear PPE where applicable, and recommend that customers wear a face covering (not N-95 or medical masks, which should be reserved for healthcare workers);
  • Adjust equipment layout and close or restrict access to equipment to maintain at least six feet of distance between equipment;
  • Temporarily close water fountains, common areas, break rooms, check-in counters, where customers or employees may congregate. Encourage users to provide their own water;
  • No self-service options (coffee bars, smoothie stations and other forms of communal food in facilities). Food retail should follow restaurant guidelines;
  • Ensure that staffing of facilities is sufficient to enable enhanced sanitization and cleaning measures;

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Work from home extended for state employees

The doors of the state Capitol were closed to the public on March 16, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

The about 23,000 state employees who have been working from home because of the coronavirus pandemic will be doing so for another month.

According to a memo from the state Department of Human Resources, the work from home arrangement has been extended until at least May 26. Meanwhile, Gov. Bill Lee this week began reopening segments of the economy like restaurants and retail stores.

About 18,000 state employees, or 44% of the total full-time workforce, have still been required to come to work during COVID-19. Changes are being made to account for the new workplace realities.

“Not only will this help the State of Tennessee reboot from the current crisis, it will also prepare our workforce for the future,” according to the memo.

Here’s the full memorandum:

Dear State Employees,

Thank you once again for your commitment to maintain services to  support the health, welfare, and safety of Tennesseans during the pandemic. As we strive to continue business in the safest, most responsible way possible, please review the following announcements regarding work from home, state facilities, workforce recalibration, and mission critical hiring.

Work From Home Extension
To support efforts to maintain social distancing, the directive for employees who are able to work from home is being extended to at least Tuesday, May 26. While work from home will continue where possible, the state is developing plans for a phased approach to return to state offices where needed. The plans will support site-critical employees in returning to their worksites safely. At the same time, work from home may continue for employees who are fully virtually enabled as a means to support social distancing.

State Facilities Update
Efforts are underway to ensure workspaces are ready to support safe employee return. The State of Tennessee will continue to follow the guidance of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Department of Health (DOH) for the cleaning and disinfecting of state facilities and usage of personal protective equipment (PPE).

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Lee administration says counties hold sway over cities on reopening policies

Gov. Bill Lee speaks to reporters on March 19, 2019, about his proposal to introduce an education savings account program in Tennessee. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Gov. Bill Lee’s office clarified over the weekend that the six counties being given the leeway to chart their own course on economic reopening amid the coronavirus pandemic will be given the authority to make those decisions for cities located within their jurisdictions.

That decision has policy implications primarily in Knox and Hamilton counties, where Republican county officials have clashed with Democratic city leaders over the extent of lockdowns.

The Chattanooga Times Free Press reports the city’s mayor, Andy Berke, disagrees with efforts to resume in-person dining at restaurants.

“Yesterday I learned that, despite public and private assurances otherwise, the city of Chattanooga would not be making its own decisions for the reopening of restaurants,” Berke said. “This has understandably caused a lot of confusion for a lot of people in our city,” Berke wrote Sunday, saying that he will abide by the governor’s decision. “Chattanooga will obey the law, and I will do everything possible to ensure its success. I want every restaurant to make payroll, and I want to protect as many Chattanoogans as possible from contracting the coronavirus.”

Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger, who has decided to follow the governor’s plan for reopening the 89 of 95 counties, said it will be left up to local businesses to decide whether to resume business.

“No one is being forced to reopen, and no one is being forced to go to a restaurant if they do not think it’s safe,” Coppinger told the Times Free Press. “As we’ve said all along, this is the first small step to try to bring our economy back while maintaining safety protocols. All this does is allows restaurants the opportunity to choose to open.”

Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs and Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon announced their joint plan on Monday.

Lee didn’t appear certain when asked last week whether workers would still qualify for unemployment benefits if they feel unsafe returning to their reopened place of employment.

In Shelby County, Democrats run both county government and the city of Memphis, though Republicans run most of the other municipalities. Nashville and Davidson County form a combined government.

The other two counties left to decide their own direction are Madison and Sullivan.

Lee unveils ‘Tennessee Pledge’ for reopening state economy

Gov. Bill Lee on Friday outlined his plan for rebooting the state’s economy, starting with restaurants and retail stores. Under his “Tennessee Pledge” guidelines, both will be allowed to begin operating next week at 50% capacity.

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

Nashville, Tenn. – Today, Gov. Bill Lee issued the first steps from the “Tennessee Pledge,” the state’s rollout of guidance and best practices for Tennessee businesses in 89 of the state’s 95 counties to keep employees and customers safe during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The first industries to receive guidance through the plan include the restaurant and retail industries.

“Tennesseans pulled together to flatten the curve, and it is time for people to begin to get back to work and back to their businesses,” Lee said. “We are pursuing a careful, measured approach to reopening our economy that does not depend on heavy-handed mandates but instead provides practical tools for businesses of all sizes.”

Lee underscored the Tennessee Pledge plan for safe economic recovery is supported by data showing Tennessee’s curve of novel coronavirus infections hitting a plateau. Lee also pointed to the unsettling economic reality COVID-19 has created in our state. 

Tennessee has seen the average daily growth rate remain stable for 14 days, in addition to a steady downward trajectory in positive tests as a percentage of total tests since April 1. The state has also had a massive ramp up in testing, included open testing available to all Tennesseans across 33 sites over last weekend, 18 this weekend, and more the next.

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Not big on social graces: Garth Brooks, Trisha Yearwood film ‘stay apart’ video

A release from Gov. Bill Lee’s office:

Nashville, Tenn. — Trisha Yearwood and Garth Brooks are the latest talent joining forces with the State of Tennessee “Do your part, stay apart” public service announcement campaign urging Tennesseans to continue safe habits as Tennessee communities gradually reopen.

Commending Tennesseans for “stepping up” in their role to stay home, limit the transmission of COVID-19 and save lives, as Tennessee slowly reopens community life they encourage citizens to “keep it going, to be smart, and to be careful and be diligent.. . . stay smart, stay strong, stay Tennessee strong.”

The video can be viewed here.

Over the past month, the State of Tennessee “Do your part, stay apart” public service announcement campaign involving influential Tennesseans in sports and entertainment reached millions of Tennesseans with the urgent message to adopt preventive health measures and slow the spread of COVID-19.

The campaign registered nearly 20 million impressions across social media, digital and outdoor advertising, broadcast television, radio and newsprint platforms. Public outreach was strategic to the state’s efforts to impact Tennesseans’ attention to the seriousness of coronavirus and to encourage stay-at-home and social distancing behaviors to limit the spread of COVID-19 and help move Tennessee toward a gradual reopening.

“From the moment Tennessee declared a state of emergency it has been our priority to get the attention of all Tennesseans to take this threat seriously so that together we can slow the spread of coronavirus and keep our state healthy,” said Tennessee Governor Bill Lee. “Our talented community of artists, athletes, leaders and organizations stepped up to get the word out about staying safe during this pandemic. Maria and I thank them all and are grateful for their willingness to lend a hand.”

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House Democrats say Lee is putting lives at risk by opening state too soon

House Democrats are blasting Gov. Bill Lee’s plan to allow his statewide stay-at-home order to expire at the end of the month. The caucus announced Tuesday it “fully” supports Tennesseans getting back to work, but not while the number of coronavirus cases is still increasing in the state.

“We have had PPE shortages, insufficient and incomplete testing, and have not had a comprehensive plan for contact tracing laid out to the public. The process for getting Tennesseans unemployment and financially supporting small businesses has been a complete failure,” the Democrats said in a press release. “In light of this, we ask: How can we trust him to handle reopening the state?”

Here’s the full release from House Democrats:

The House Democratic Caucus says Governor Bill Lee is putting the lives of our loved ones and Tennesseans at risk by opening the state too soon.

While the Caucus fully supports getting Tennesseans back to work, it needs to be done in a manner that protects the lives of residents during this unprecedented humanitarian crisis. As of today, the number of positive cases are still increasing in Tennessee.

The Lee administration has proven that it is incapable of managing the state under the stay at home order: We have had PPE shortages, insufficient and incomplete testing and have not had a comprehensive plan for contact tracing laid out to the public. The process for getting Tennesseans unemployment and financially supporting small businesses has been a complete failure. We recognize the hard work of many of the employees of the Department of Labor and, in fact, all Tennesseans across the state, despite how they have been let down by the Governor’s office. In light of this, we ask: How can we trust him to handle reopening the state?

Tennesseans deserve to get the basic services that they pay their tax dollars for: keeping them safe and healthy and financially afloat during hard times. We recognize the economic seriousness that we face, Democrats have always fought for working class Tennesseans regardless of party affiliation. But we need to get the basics right while we are closed before we take the next step and reopen the state.

Health care workers on the front lines like pulmonologist Dr. Aaron Milstone said yesterday: “rolling back health protections like the stay at home order without first having the ability to quickly identify new cases, break chains of transmission, and protect first responders and health care workers from infection only jeopardizes lives and the economy – and it goes against the very recommendations of the Centers for Disease announced today, (yesterday).”

Most Tennessee state parks to reopen Friday

Most of Tennessee’s shuttered state parks will reopen on Friday. All of the state’s 56 parks and natural areas were shuttered amid Gov. Bill Lee’s statewide stay-at-home order. The Republican governor on Monday  announced plans to let that order expire on April 30.

The parks will be open for daytime use only and social distancing guidelines will remain in effect. Visitors are urged to go to parks closest to their homes.

Here’s the release from the Department of Environment and Conservation.

NASHVILLE –Tennessee State Parks will reopen most of its 56 state parks on Friday, April 24, for day-use only. Specific details on which parks will reopen will be available on this week.

“We are eager to serve once again but we urge Tennesseans to continue to practice physical distancing when visiting parks,” Jim Bryson, deputy commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, said. “We have implemented policies designed to prevent the spread of COVID-19, and we will monitor all aspects of the issue to ensure safety among visitors and our staff.”

When considering a visit, Tennessee State Parks encourages the following:

  • Stay at home if you are sick or do not feel well.
  • Maintain at least six feet of distance between you and other visitors.
  • Visit parks that are only a short distance from your home.
  • Consider visiting earlier in the day so you can adjust plans if a park is full. Tennessee State Parks may limit access to certain parks or areas if capacity is reached.
  • Plan ahead. Many Tennessee State Parks buildings will be closed. Plan to bring your own snacks, water and hand sanitizer.
  • Prepare for limited or no bathroom access. Some restrooms remain open, but many will not.
  • Consider bringing a mask and wearing it when around other people.
  • Carry your trash with you or dispose of it in the appropriate containers to help keep our cleaning staff safe and our parks litter-free.

Overcrowding may cause entire parks or portions of parks to close again.

Facilities and gathering areas, including pavilions and playgrounds, will remain closed. Cabins, lodges, restaurants, campgrounds, and group camps remain closed. For up-to-date information on park closure please visit

Lee announces end of stay-at-home order for 89 of 95 counties

Gov. Bill Lee speaks at a Philips event in Nashville on April 2, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Gov. Bill Lee announced Monday that stay-at-home orders will expire next week in all but six of Tennessee’s 95 counties.

The counties that will continue to be covered by local bans on nonessential business are Shelby, Davidson, Knox, Hamilton, Madison, and Sullivan.

Here’s the full release from the Lee administration:

Nashville, Tenn. — Today, Governor Bill Lee announced the order for Tennesseans to remain at home will expire April 30, with the vast majority of businesses in 89 counties allowed to re-open on May 1.

“Our Economic Recovery Group is working with industry leaders around the clock so that some businesses can open as soon as Monday, April 27,” said Gov. Lee. “These businesses will open according to specific guidance that we will provide in accordance with state and national experts in both medicine and business.”

The Lee Administration will work with Shelby, Madison, Davidson, Hamilton, Knox and Sullivan counties and their health departments as they plan their own re-open strategies.

“While I am not extending the safer at home order past the end of April, we are working directly with our major metropolitan areas to ensure they are in a position to reopen as soon and safely as possible,” said Lee. “Social distancing works, and as we open up our economy it will be more important than ever that we keep social distancing as lives and livelihoods depend on it.”

The Economic Recovery Group (ERG), composed of 30 leaders from the public and private sector is crafting guidance to assist businesses in a safe reopening. The industry representatives participating in the ERG collectively represent over 140,000 Tennessee businesses that employ over 2.5M Tennesseans. More information about ERG is available here.

Some restaurateurs skeptical of call to reopen on May 1

A committee advising Gov. Bill Lee on reopening restaurants wants the process to begin on May 1. But not all restaurateurs are on board.

“We’re pushing statewide for a quick reopen,” Ernie Mellor, president of the Memphis Restaurant Association and a member of the governor’s task force, told the Daily Memphian.  “We want to phase it in at 50% seating for two weeks, 75% for two weeks, and then reopen 100% after four weeks.”

“Of course, the governor can come back and say whatever he wants,” he said. “And if someone doesn’t want to open, they don’t have to.”

Not all restaurateurs are happy with that timetable.

“We haven’t even peaked yet in Memphis and Shelby County,” Deni Reilly, the co-owner of the Majestic Grille, told the publication. “It’s civically irresponsible, and it’s operationally unobtainable for most restaurants. Where can we even get paper masks for our employees?”

Other restaurateurs skeptical of the May reopening include the owners of The Rendezvous,  Kelly English’s Restaurant Iris, Acre, and Erling Jensen.

Read the full account here.

Protests held in cities around Tennessee over coronavirus response

Protests were held in Tennessee cities over the weekend to demand an end to shelter-in-place and social distancing requirements put in place amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

They included about 300 demonstrators rallying outside the state Capitol in Nashville, The Tennessean reports. The protests came as Tennessee’s confirmed coronavirus cases exceeded 7,000, including 148 deaths.

“We’re all here for one reason,” Kim Edwards, a Nashville rally organizer, announced. “And it’s our rights. It’s our freedom.”

The protests followed tweets from President Donald Trump on Friday calling for people to “liberate” states like Michigan, Minnesota, and Virginia, where similar protests had taken place.

One of the protesters in Nashville appeared to be none other than former Rep. Jeremy Durham (R-Franklin), who was thrown out of the General Assembly following allegations of serial sexual misconduct.