coronavirus

House scheduled to hear 391 bills this week, Senate none

Rep. Jim Coley (R-Bartlett) presides of the House Higher Education Subcommittee on May 26, 2020. (Screengrab: Tennessee General Assembly)

The full slate of 20 state House committees meeting this week have 391 bills on their calendars, according to a count by The Tennessean. By contrast, the Senate has none.

The two chamber are at odds about how wide the scope of their return into session should be. The upper chamber wants to focus on COVID-19 related legislation, the budget, and “time-sensitive” measures. The House wants to throw the doors open to any remaining bills, including controversial measures such as making the Bible the state’s official book, banning most abortions, and getting rid of training and background check requirements to carry handguns in public.

The lower chamber is allowing limited access to lobbyists and the public, while the Senate will remain on lockdown for all but lawmakers, staff, and the media.

The Finance Committee is the panel meeting on the Senate side this week.

Rep. Mark White (R-Memphis) speaks during a House subcommittee meeting in on May 26, 2020 (Screengrab: Tennessee General Assembly)

Senate throws down marker over which bills it wants to take up in resumed session

In the ongoing fight between the House and Senate over the scope of the return to session, the upper chamber has compiled a list of bills it plans to limit itself to when lawmakers return on June 1. The House is taking a more wide-open approach.

The Senate committee agendas don’t include bills already pending floor votes.

Here’s the list:

Senate Education

1. SB1974 by Gresham

Education – As introduced, clarifies that the powers and authority of the state building commission with respect to construction or demolition projects undertaken by foundations created for the benefit of the state universities originally governed by the board of regents still apply, after the restructuring of the board of regents, to foundations created for the benefit of state universities governed by local governing boards of trustees. – Amends TCA Title 4 and Title 49.

2. SB1247 by Gresham

Education, Dept. of – As introduced, requires the department to publish the list of art supplies that are certified nontoxic by the Arts and Creative Materials Institute on the department’s website. – Amends TCA Title 49.

3. SB2160 by Johnson, Gresham

Education – As introduced, establishes various requirements relating to literacy instruction provided to students in any of the grades kindergarten through two; establishes methods of evaluating the reading proficiency of students in any of the grades kindergarten through three; establishes requirements relating to literacy instruction provided to teaching candidates; establishes various studies and review processes relating to the state’s accountability model and the licensure process for teachers. – Amends TCA Title 49.

Senate Finance, Ways & Means

1. SB 2111 by Lundberg

Public Funds and Financing – As introduced, changes from January 31 to March 1, the date by which the commissioner of economic and community development must report to the general assembly on the administration of the program allocating the state’s bond authority among governmental units having authority to issue bonds. – Amends TCA Title 3; Title 4; Title 8; Title 9 and Title 12.

2. SB2312 by Gardenhire

Hospitals and Health Care Facilities – As introduced, makes various changes to the certificate of need process for healthcare facilities and services. – Amends TCA Title 68, Chapter 11, Part 16.

3. SB2097 by Gresham

Scholarships and Financial Aid – As introduced, enacts the “Financial Aid Simplification for Tennesseans (FAST) Act.” – Amends TCA Title 12, Chapter 3; Title 49, Chapter 1 and Title 49, Chapter 4.

4. SB2677 by Johnson

Taxes, Sales – As introduced, changes, from February 1 to February 15, the date by which the department of revenue must report findings and recommendations regarding sales taxes collected on electronic nicotine delivery devices to the speakers of the senate and the house of representatives and the chairs of the respective finance, ways and means committees. – Amends TCA Title 67.

5. SB1633 by Yager

Air Pollution – As introduced, requires the department of environment and conservation to develop a plan to implement the federal affordable clean energy rule and submit the plan to the EPA for approval by June 15, 2020. – Amends TCA Title 7; Title 65; Title 68 and Chapter 478 of the Public Acts of 2015.

6. Budget package

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A look at preparations for Tennessee lawmakers’ return amid the coronavirus pandemic

The state House and Senate are still at odds about the scope of the upcoming return into session, but that’s not stopping them from getting the Cordell Hull Building prepped for lawmakers’ return.

Here’s a look at some of the changes being made to the legislative office complex:

Plexiglass barriers have been installed in the main House committee room on May 19, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Signs remind visitors to keep a six-foot distance outside the elevator bank in the Cordell Hull Building on May 19, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Taped arrows show the path to the cafeteria in the Cordell Hull Building on May 19, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Audience seats are covered and witness and member chairs are separated in the main Senate committee room on May 19, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Plexiglass barriers were being installed in the main House committee room on May 19, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Plexiglass slides can be pulled back to shield lawmakers when they are sitting in the committee room, as seen on May 19, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

A bench in the entryway of the Cordell Hull Building is taped off on May 19, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Audience seats are covered and witness and member chairs are separated in the main Senate committee room on May 19, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

A middle urinal is taped off in the Cordell Hull Building in the interest of social distancing on May 19, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

COVID-19 overflow treatment center completed at former Commercial Appeal building

An overflow coronavirus treatment center has been completed within the building that until recently housed the Commercial Appeal newspaper in Memphis.

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

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee and a delegation of Shelby County leaders and U.S. Army Corp of Engineers service members will mark the completion of a significant project in Tennessee’s COVID-19 efforts with a joint review of the equipping and readying of the Mid-South region’s COVID-19 alternate care site at 495 Union Ave., in Memphis, Tenn.

“Our work in Shelby County represents an effective local, state, and federal partnership effort to put in place a critical need in our COVID-19 efforts,” Gov. Lee said.  “These relationships are vital as we balance and evaluate the state’s short- and long-term COVID-19 response, and tailor health care planning efforts to local needs.”

The Memphis alternate care site provides an additional 401, individual bed spaces to treat COVID-19 patients if area hospitals begin to exceed their bed capacity, and is set up with only base supplies currently, such as beds, chairs, tables, and IV poles,

Medical equipment and supplies will be put in place if the site is activated to receive and treat patients who test positive for COVID-19 and experience symptoms requiring low-acuity hospital care.

“The facility has the advantage of being located in close proximity to numerous Memphis hospitals and came with infrastructure in place that facilitated rapid and safe conversion as an alternate care site,” said Commissioner Lisa Piercey, MD, MBA, FAAP, Tennessee Department of Health. “Our hope is we never need it; however the facility is ready and will remain on standby until TDH and Shelby County officials determine the capacity is needed to treat COVID-19 patients.”

Under a Mission Assignment from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, USACE coordinated and managed the construction contractors during the facility’s renovation phase, and the Governor’s Unified Command Group has secured the wrap-around services for the ongoing maintenance and operation of the facility.

These wrap-around services, which will only be put in place if the site is activated, include biomedical, food, ice and water, internal and external security, internet access, janitorial, linen, medical oxygen, office supplies, pest control, pharmacy, and radiological and X-rays.

The University of Tennessee Health Science Center in Memphis will provide medical direction for the care of patients if the facility is occupied.

Quick Facts about the Memphis Alternate Care Site

  • The Memphis care site is located at 495 Union Ave. and occupies four floors of a five-story, 125,000 square-foot building that is the former home for The Commercial Appeal.
  • The facility can accommodate 401 patients, with 33 beds set aside for higher-acuity care, and is equipped with 22 nursing stations, and 30 storage rooms.
  • As of May 16, USACE members and 16 USACE-contracted Memphis companies had devoted more than 193,000 hours of work into renovating the facility, for an average of 275 people on-site, around-the-clock, for one month.
  • nexAir, an industrial gas equipment supplier, installed the facility’s oxygen supply system and tanks, with a main tank that will hold 6,000 gallons of liquid oxygen and a 3,000-gallon back-up tank.
  • Fifty-six service members of the Tennessee National Guard transported all of the basic supplies currently at the facility.

The award of a Major Disaster Declaration to Tennessee on April 2, 2020, made funding assistance available from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to the State for costs associated with implementing COVID-19 emergency protective measures, such as establishing alternate care sites to increase hospital bed capacity.

Gov. Lee established the UCG on March 23, 2020, to streamline the COVIG-19 emergency response coordination between the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency, the Tennessee Department of Health, and the Tennessee Department of Military.

State Funding Board meeting canceled

A meeting of the State Funding Board scheduled for this week has been canceled.

The panel comprised of the comptroller, treasurer, secretary of state, and finance commissioner is tasked with coming up with the state’s revenue estimates and approving incentive deals for economic development projects.

Gov. Bill Lee told reporters over the weekend the State Funding Board would be meeting to discuss the fiscal “metrics” the state’s spending plan will have to be adjusted to.

A State Funding Board spokesman says this week’s meeting was canceled because there were no items on the agenda to discuss. Revenue projections could be discussed at a future date, though nothing has been scheduled.

State lawmakers plan to return to the Capitol complex next week to start laying the groundwork for their return into session on June 1.

(This post has been updated with comments from a spokesman for the State Funding Board)

Newspaper to local lawmaker: ‘Answer the question’ on no-bid contract

Rep. Micah Van Huss (R-Jonesborough), standing,, confers with colleagues as they await Gov. Bill Lee arrival for his second State of the State address in Nashville on Feb. 3, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

The Johnson City Press is taking state Rep. Micah Van Huss to task for refusing to answer its reporter’s questions about a no-bid facemask contract.

The state spent $8 million for North Carolina sock maker Renfro Corp. to produce the masks. The see-through material used for the masks has raised questions about their effectiveness in preventing the transmission of COVID-19.

The Jonesborough Republican instead cast Republican Bill Lee as the victim of negative news coverage. Van Huss said the Johnson City Press should spend its time “reporting on news that gives Tennesseans hope in our humanity instead of dividing them with a political hit on Governor Lee.”

Van Huss then boasted about his response on social media. According to the paper’s editorial:

If Van Huss actually read this newspaper, he would know that we have published numerous articles about “hope in our humanity” during this crisis. Our reporters repeatedly have written about relief projects, volunteers, creative coping efforts and inspiring people amid this pandemic.

State Sen. Jon Lundberg (R-Bristol) said he supports granting the governor some latitude during times of emergency.

“During a pandemic, we have expectations that things will need to happen that won’t have that usual check and balance of bids, submissions, requests for comment, requests for quotes in that process,” Lundberg told the paper.

 

Tennessee Supreme Court to livestream oral arguments

The Tennessee Supreme Court plans to livestream oral arguments for the first time on Tuesday. While audio and video of proceedings have been posted online in the past, it was with a delay of up to two days.

Because of limitations on in-person attendance in the courtroom due to COVID-19, the state’s highest court is now broadcasting the hearings on its YouTube page in real time.

Here’s the release from the courts:

The Tennessee Supreme Court remains committed to keeping Tennessee courts open while protecting the health and safety of all parties.  Due to the continued concerns regarding COVID-19, the cases set for the May 19, 2020 docket will be heard by livestream video conferencing.  This is one of the many efforts the Court has taken during the COVID-19 pandemic to prioritize the health and well-being of all litigants, attorneys, judges, and employees of the court system. 

(Details of the cases after the jump)

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Tennessee to allow large attractions to reopen, lift limits on restaurants and stores

Large Tennessee attractions can start reopening next Friday, while restaurants and retail stores will no longer have to limit their capacity as long as social distancing guidelines are followed.

The attractions in question include racetracks, amusement parks, waterparks, theaters, museums, and auditoriums. The announcement comes a day after NASCAR announced plans to hold a race at Bristol Motor Speedway next weekend without any fans present.

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

Nashville, Tenn. – As Tennessee continues to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, the state’s Economic Recovery Group announced today it will lift capacity restrictions on restaurants and retail to instead focus on social distancing best practices effective May 22 and issue guidelines to facilitate the safe reopening of larger, non-contact attractions on or after May 22. New Tennessee Pledge guidelines will be released early next week. Six counties – Shelby, Madison, Davidson, Hamilton, Knox and Sullivan – may continue to follow individual, county-specific reopening plans created in consultation with State and local health departments.

“Tennesseans have worked incredibly hard to do their part and help slow the spread of COVID-19 so that our state can begin to reopen. Thanks to their continued efforts, we’re able to allow restaurants and retail businesses to operate at greater capacity and large attractions to open in a safe and thoughtful way,” said Governor Bill Lee. “Our state continues to see downward trends in case growth and meets the White House criteria for a phased reopening. This progress has been hard-won, and we can build upon it by reopening while also maintaining common-sense safety measures like mask-wearing and good hygiene. By taking the Tennessee Pledge, our businesses can reopen in a way that protects the health of their customers and employees, and protects the livelihoods of hard-working Tennesseans.”

The new Large Attractions guidance applies to those businesses that can effectively practice social distancing with strong measures to protect both employees and customers, including racetracks, amusement parks, waterparks, theaters and dinner theaters, auditoriums, large museums and more. Restrictions on social gatherings of more than 10 people remain in place for the time being. Updates to Restaurant Guidance will include a lift on capacity restrictions, allowing for increased service as long as social distancing guidelines are adhered to, including 6 feet between tables. 

The updated guidelines come as Tennessee continues to meet the White House state gating criteria for phased reopening. The gating criteria include:

  • Symptoms
    • Downward trajectory of influenza-like illnesses (ILI) reported within a 14-day period; AND
    • Downward trajectory of COVID-like syndromic (CLI) cases reported within a 14-day period
  • Cases
    • Downward trajectory of documented cases within a 14-day period; OR
    • Downward trajectory of positive tests as a percent of total tests within a 14-day period (flat or increasing volume of tests)
  • Hospitals
    • Treat all patients without crisis care; AND
    • Robust testing program in place for at-risk healthcare workers, including emerging antibody testing

 

Hospital capacity remains sufficient to meet the needs of patients, while the state continues to meet the goal of testing 2 percent of the population per month.

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. 

Ag Department warns against illegally imported swine

Don’t illegally bring your swine to Tennessee. That’s the message being sent by the state Agriculture Department on Thursday.

A backlog in meat processing due to the Covid-19 pandemic has led to waiting lists as long as several months, leading to a spike in illegal shipments of pigs in Tennessee, according to the agency. Illegal importation of livestock meat result in civil penalties of $1,000 per animal.

Here’s the full release from the Ag Department:

NASHVILLE — The Tennessee Department of Agriculture (TDA) is reminding citizens that illegally importing livestock to Tennessee can have wide-reaching negative effects for us all.

Livestock producers, dealers, and citizens must adhere to state and federal import requirements for any livestock shipped into Tennessee. The COVID-19 pandemic has led to backlogs at meat processing facilities in other states, leading to an increase in illegal shipments and sales of pigs in Tennessee.

“This presents a health risk for livestock and people in Tennessee,” State Veterinarian Dr. Samantha Beaty said. “Even swine that are raised commercially can carry diseases that aren’t detectable without the proper testing and verification. It’s critical for everyone to follow livestock import rules and requirements to make sure we don’t bring illness here.”

TDA oversees interstate and intrastate movement of animals in Tennessee. TDA’s Agricultural Crime Unit will work with law enforcement agencies and Animal Health Technicians to confirm import compliance for livestock in transit and at livestock markets statewide. Illegal importation of livestock can result in civil penalties up to $1,000 per animal and/or criminal charges.

Individuals planning to purchase livestock for meat should first check local processors for scheduling availability. Many facilities are booked several months out, requiring extended time and expense to maintain and care for the livestock before processing. Pick Tennessee Products offers a directory of meat processors online at www.picktnproducts.org.

The State Veterinarian’s Office seeks to prevent the spread of disease through import and movement requirements, livestock traceability, disaster mitigation, and the services of the C. E. Kord Animal Health Diagnostic Laboratory.

Alexander lauds coronavirus testing in Tennessee

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Maryville) speaks at a Tennessee Titans event in Nashville on Dec. 13, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, who is presiding over health committee hearings while in self-quarantine in Tennessee, is lauding his home state’s COVID-19 testing regimen. But the Maryville Republican is warning that more needs to be done before college campuses can reopen this fall.

“Tennessee has tested 4 percent of its population. The governor hopes to increase that to 7 percent by the end of May,” Alexander said. “That impressive level of testing is sufficient to begin Phase I of going back to work in Tennessee, but as I said last week, it is not nearly enough to provide confidence to 31,000 students and faculty that it is safe to return to the University of Tennessee Knoxville campus in August.”

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

MARYVILLE, Tennessee, May 12, 2020 — Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) today said that COVID-19 testing in the United States is “impressive” and “enough to begin going back to work.”

“But millions more rapid tests created by new technologies are needed to give the rest of America enough confidence to go back to work and back to school,” Alexander added.

Alexander made his remarks today during the Senate health committee hearing — “COVID-19: Safely Getting Back to Work and Back to School” — which featured testimony from Administration officials from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), about what federal, state and local governments are doing to help Americans go back to work and back to school as rapidly and safely as possible. 

“According to Johns Hopkins University, the United States has tested over 9 million Americans for COVID-19. That is twice as many as any other country — we don’t know what China has done — and more per capita than most countries including South Korea, which several committee members have cited as an example of a country doing testing well.”

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