Bill Lee

How Knoxville public radio got the White House coronavirus report Gov. Lee didn’t want to release

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)

Tennessee ranked fourth worst in the country for COVID-19 related deaths per 100,000, according to a White House report that Gov. Bill Lee didn’t want to release to the public. The report was obtained under public records laws by a Knoxville public radio station.

The report took a circuitous path toward becoming public. The Center for Public Integrity in Washington reported about it’s existence last week, and the TNJ: On the Hill blog posted about the finding that Tennessee had slid into the “red zone” of 24 states most affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. That led another reporter to ask the governor about the report (and the related refusal to make it public) during his weekly press conference.

Lee responded that not all the of the details in the White House report are up to date and that he wanted to limited the sources of information about the outbreak.

“Multiple streams of data from multiple places is not helpful to people,” Lee said.

While the Lee administration didn’t want to share the White House report with the media, it did send copies to health officials around the state. That’s where WUOT-FM, the public radio station in Knoxville, comes in.

The station requested a copy from the Knox County Health Department. Director Martha Buchanan said since she shared the report with the county Board of Health, a a decision-making body, it became subject to Tennessee open records laws.

The report includes a recommendation to impose a statewide mask mandate, which is something Lee has decided to leave to county mayors and health departments.

The report says Tennessee saw a 41% spike in new coronavirus cases between Oct. 4 and Oct. 11, and a 32% increase in COVID-19 related deaths over the period. At the same time, the number of tests being conducted around the state has dropped. The sharpest increases in coronavirus cases has occurred in Putnam, Wilson, and Sullivan counties, according to the White House.

Read the full WUOT and the White House report on Tennessee report here.

Lee calls for suspending negative consequences from school testing

Gov. Bill Lee delivers his second State of the State address in Nashville on Feb. 3, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Gov. Bill Lee announced Friday he will ask lawmakers to suspend any consequences for schools, teachers, and students if they do poorly on testing during the current school year.

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

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Tennessee Governor Bill Lee and Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn today called for removing negative consequences for schools and educators associated with student assessments for the 2020-2021 school year. Student assessments will be conducted as planned.

“Given the unprecedented disruption that the COVID-19 pandemic and extended time away from the classroom has had on Tennessee’s students, my Administration will work with the General Assembly to bring forward a solution for this school year that alleviates any burdens associated with educator evaluations and school accountability metrics,” said Gov. Lee. “Accountability remains incredibly important for the education of Tennessee’s students, and we will keep this year’s assessments in place to ensure an accurate picture of where our students are and what supports are needed to regain learning loss and get them back on the path to success.”

“Due to COVID-19, Tennessee districts and schools experienced extended periods away from the classroom and missed critical instruction time during the spring. The department supports Governor Lee’s call for holding teachers and schools harmless from negative consequences associated with accountability measures this school year,” said Commissioner Schwinn. “Administering assessments to gauge student learning and ensuring strong accountability best enables us to meet the needs of all students, however we know the significant challenges our teachers and school and district leaders are facing and it remains critical to reward their good work. We look forward to working together with our elected officials on a solution for this school year that preserves our strong foundations while ensuring that every teacher feels supported in focusing on educating their students.”

Gov. Lee in quarantine after COVID-19 exposure

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 and his wife, Maria, are in quarantine after being exposed to COVID-19 by a member of his security detail. The governor has tested negative so far for the virus.

Here’s a statement from Lee’s office:

Today, a member of the Governor’s Executive Security Detail has tested positive for COVID-19. Gov. Lee is feeling well and has tested negative for COVID-19 but out of an abundance of caution, he is quarantining at home with the First Lady until further notice. Governor’s Office protocol requires masks and social distancing and no staff are believed to be positive at this time. 

Print your own: New Department of Commerce & Insurance licensing system going more paperless

The Tennessee Commerce and Insurance Department is going more paperless. Here are the details from the agency:

NASHVILLE — As part of ongoing efforts to modernize insurance licensing, save money and remove barriers that hinder the Volunteer State’s economy, the Tennessee Department of Commerce & Insurance (TDCI) announces a system upgrade that will create a more paperless insurance licensing process.

Starting Tuesday, Oct. 13 by 9 a.m. CDT, TDCI will go live on the newest version of State Based Systems (SBS), a web-based application through the National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC) that supports states’ insurance regulation. When launched, the new system will mean:

_ No more paper licenses will be printed and mailed by TDCI. Instead, licensees can print a license any time by using the SBS License Manager tool.

_ No more renewal notifications will be mailed to Tennessee insurance producers. To be contacted by TDCI, licensees must keep a current business email updated in TDCI’s system. A current and updated email address is imperative to receive notifications. Licensees can update their email online at www.nipr.com by clicking on the ‘Change Contact Information’ link.

_ Licenses will now be eligible for renewal up to 90 days prior to their expiration date.

_ Email notifications will automatically be sent once a license is approved.

_ Licensees will continue to be able to print their license and view their CE transcripts online.

“With over 200,000 licensed insurance agents in Tennessee and $44.4 billion in premium volume written in 2019, it is incumbent on TDCI to continually improve our processes in order to create efficiencies and help Tennessee’s insurance professionals succeed while providing responsible regulation to help protect consumers,” said TDCI Commissioner Hodgen Mainda.

During the transition period that began Oct. 7, NIPR and SBS services, including licensing operations and online consumer complaint filing, will be suspended. Consumers should contact TDCI Consumer Insurance Services at 615-741-2218 or 1-800-342-4029 with questions or to file a complaint.

“The SBS improvement will save thousands of dollars in taxpayer monies as well as countless man hours since paper licenses will no longer need to be printed or mailed by our staff,” said TDCI Assistant Commissioner of Insurance Rachel Jrade-Rice. “I encourage consumers or insurance producers who may have questions about the upgrade to contact our team at the appropriate contact numbers in order to receive additional information.”

Entities with questions pertaining to licensing should contact TDCI Agent Licensing at 1-888-416-0868 or 615-741-2693. Questions about the SBS transition should be directed to the SBS Service Desk sbshelp@naic.org or 816-783-8990.

Lee announces $50M in coronavirus relief funds for TN businesses

Gov. Bill Lee, left, announces a $200 million relief program for businesses affected by the state’s stay-at-home order for non-essential businesses at Arnold’s restaurant in Nashville on June 2, 2020. To his right are House Speaker Cameron Sexton, Senate Speaker Randy McNally, Rep. Pat Marsh, and Rep. Harold Love. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

From Gov. Bill Lee’s office:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee Governor Bill Lee and the Financial Stimulus Accountability Group (FSAG) today announced an initial $50 million in federal Coronavirus Relief Funds for the new Supplemental Employer Recovery Grant (SERG) program to provide additional relief to small businesses suffering during the COVID-19 pandemic. This new wave of funding includes specific support for minority-owned, women-owned and veteran-owned businesses, as well as businesses owned by disabled persons. 

“Small businesses are the backbone of our economy and supporting them through these difficult times has been one of the core missions of the Financial Stimulus Accountability Group,” said Gov. Lee. “The SERG program will provide further relief to small businesses, especially those who may not have been able to access previous federal and state relief funds.”

“The coronavirus has placed an inordinate burden on our small business owners. These businesses are critical economic drivers and the most vulnerable during times of crisis,” said Lieutenant Governor Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge). “I was grateful for the opportunity to work with my colleagues on the Financial Stimulus Accountability Group to provide this relief to businesses in need.”

“We have stood with our businesses by initiating the Small Business Relief Program, and stabilizing the Unemployment Trust Fund, and today’s announcement is yet another targeted solution to strengthen the Tennessee business community’s ongoing recovery efforts,” said House Speaker Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville). “All of these programs support our minority, women, disabled and service-disabled veteran business owners who are suffering during these extraordinary times. We need them to remain open and to thrive, and I applaud our Stimulus Accountability Group for helping all Tennessee businesses get back up on their feet so they remain successful.”

Small business owners and non-profit organizations can apply to receive reimbursement for eligible direct expenses or costs incurred as a result of business interruption due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The program’s application window will open October 7, 2020 and remain open until December 29, 2020, or until all funds are depleted. Please note:

– Funds will be distributed on a first-come, first-served basis;

– Awards are capped at $30,000. Businesses located in low to moderate income (“LMI”) census tracts, Opportunity zones, or Promise zones will receive an additional $500 added to the maximum allowable expenses;

– 10% of all funds distributed under this program will be reserved for eligible diversity business enterprises, classified as minority business enterprises, women business enterprises, or service-disabled veteran business enterprises, and enterprises owned by disabled persons.

The period for reimbursable expenses is May 1, 2020 through August 31, 2020. Eligible expenses and business interruption costs include but are not limited to:

– Costs to create social distancing measures

– Purchasing personal protective equipment for employees or customers

– Contactless equipment

– Payroll expenses 

– Mortgage interest

The SERG program follows the previously allocated $300 million for more than 40,000 qualifying businesses under the Tennessee Business Relief Program.

To apply and learn more about what is eligible for reimbursement, please visithttps://tncaresact.tn.gov/SERG. For application assistance, please call 1-833-740-1438 or email support@TNCARESACT.com.


Another provision of TN abortion law blocked in federal court

Gov. Bill Lee speaks at a press conference announcing his sweeping bill seeking to ban most Tennessee abortions in Nashville on Jan. 23, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Another provision of Tennessee’s sweeping anti-abortion law has been blocked in federal court. U.S. District Judge Chip Campbell, a Trump appointee, put a hold on a requirement that would have gone into effect on Thursday to require patients be informed about “abortion reversal.” He previously blocked other elements of the law seeking to ban most abortions once a fetal heartbeat is detected.

The plaintiffs argued the law would violate abortion providers’ First Amendment rights by requiring them to convey “scientifically unsupported and misleading information.” Campbell said he was unable to fully assess competing expert opinions about whether such reversals are possible, but said he plans to hear what expert witnesses have to say on the matter during a hearing scheduled for Oct. 13.

But Campbell said he did not have to wait to find one aspect of the law misleading: A requirement for the state Department of Health to post information about the reversal of chemical abortions on its website within 90 days of the law going into effect, meaning there would be up to three-month delay between when such signage had to be posted and when information must be made available. No details had yet been posted on the Health Department site as of Tuesday, Campbell said.

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Lee lifts COVID-19 restrictions in most counties, leaves mask requirement in hands of mayors

Gov. Bill Lee announced Tuesday he is lifting all pandemic-related restrictions on businesses in 89 of 95 Tennessee counties, but will continue to leave it to mayors to decide whether impose local mask mandates.

The governor said it will remain up to the six counties with their own independent health departments (Shelby, Davidson, Knox, Hamilton, Sullivan, and Madison) to craft their own rules, but urged them to also quickly rescind restrictions.

Tennessee ranked 13th in the country with about 287 new cases per 100,000 residents over the last two weeks, according to Associated Press data. Nearly 2,400 Tennesseans have died from virus-related causes.

Counties announce end of mask mandates ahead of governor’s decision

Gov. Bill Lee, left, announces a $200 million relief program for businesses affected by the state’s stay-at-home order for non-essential businesses at Arnold’s restaurant in Nashville on June 2, 2020. To his right are House Speaker Cameron Sexton, Senate Speaker Randy McNally, Rep. Pat Marsh, and Rep. Harold Love. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

With Gov. Bill Lee’s decision pending Tuesday about whether to extend an executive order allowing county mayors to decide whether to impose mask mandates to help stem the spread of COVID-19, several local leaders are already announcing they will no longer require face coverings.

Rutherford County Mayor Bill Ketron, whom Lee had personally lobbied to impose a mask requirement in July, dropped the mandate last week. Wilson County Mayor Randall Hutto has announced a local mask mandate will expire Wednesday, but he’s still urging people to wear them in public. (Meanwhile, WZTV-TV reported the administrative building in Lebanon is closing down after eight employees tested positive for COVID-19.)

Montgomery County Mayor Jim Durrett announced a mask mandate for businesses open to the public will end on Wednesday. But the requirement will remain for government offices, including schools.

Hamblen County Mayor Bill Brittain said he would extend a mask mandate if the governor leaves the decision with local officials. The number of positive tests has declined in the East Tennessee county since the mandate went into effect on Aug. 4, he said. Tipton County Executive Jeff Huffman cited improving infection numbers in dropping a mask mandate.

But in Sullivan County, local health department director Stephen May said he wants to extend the county’s mask mandate beyond Sept. 30. Sullivan is among six counties with independent local health departments that have the authority to set their own policy responses to the pandemic. The others are Shelby, Davidson, Knox, Hamilton, and Madison counties.

House Speaker Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville) has been speaking out against the power of local health boards to override the wishes of county mayors.

“They’re acting like a legislative body that are voted or elected and they’re not. They’re appointed and they’re actually putting in criminal enhancements for people not to wear masks,” WCRB-TV quoted Sexton as saying during a visit to Chattanooga last week. “That’s outside their purview.

“They are absolutist and they are able to control anything and make people do whatever they want,” he said. “That’s not good policy. That’s not a good step.”

Letting the mask slip: Lee defends lack of face covering for Trump boat rally

(Image credit: Bill Hagerty campaign)

While Gov. Bill Lee has declined to issue a statewide mask mandate, he has been a prominent proponent of using face coverings to help stem the spread of COVID-19. But the governor was put on the defensive by a photo posted to social media by Bill Hagerty showing the Republican U.S. Senate nominee living it up at a Trump boat rally with Lee, U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais and state Sen. Janice Bowling.

“There are circumstances where I don’t wear a mask because I don’t feel I’m at risk in that situation,” Lee said. “But, yeah, I felt safe. And when I don’t, I wear a mask.”

The Lee administration is spending more than $4 million through the end of the year on its “Face It” multimedia ad campaign to urge mask usage.

“I think Tennesseans need to know, and they hear me every day and they see me in masks every day,” the governor said at a press conference this week. “They watch what we say and what we do. I think it’s really important that I think it’s very serious.”

About 3,000 people attended the 400-boat rally, according to the The Herald Chronicle.

Tennessee looks to lure more investment from China amid political backlash

Gov. Bill Lee speaks at a press conference in Nashville on Jan. 23, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

While China has become a favorite bogeyman on the campaign trail this year, Tennessee officials are still courting the country’s business.

A recorded message from Gov. Bill Lee was played at the North American Chinese Investment Summit in Beijing over the weekend, according to China.tn.org.

The event was themed “Navigating the New Path of Outbound Investment for Chinese Enterprises in a VUCA World.” VUCA stands for volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous.

“We just want you to know that here in Tennessee we are open for business,” Lee said in the video, which officials send out to various economic development events around the world. “And we understand the value of partnership and relationship, especially with foreign owned companies.” 

“If you’re considering locating here in Tennessee, we would love to have you,” the governor said.

The event was organized by the Tennessee China Development Center.