coronavirus

Jury trials suspended in Tennessee through end of January

While Gov. Bill Lee has rejected a return to more stringent government measures in response to the worsening COVID-19 pandemic, the state Supreme Court has decided to delay all jury trials until at least the end of January.

Read the unanimous order here:

On March 13, 2020, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Chief Justice of the Tennessee Supreme Court declared a state of emergency for the Judicial Branch of Tennessee government and activated a Continuity of Operations Plan for the courts of Tennessee. See Tenn. Const. Art. VI, § 1; Tenn. Code Ann. §§ 16-3-501 to 16-3-504 (2009); Moore-Pennoyer v. State, 515 S.W.3d 271, 276-77 (Tenn. 2017); Tenn. Sup. Ct. R. 49. This state of emergency constitutes a “disaster” for purposes of Tenn. Sup. Ct. R. 49 and Tenn. Code Ann. § 28-1-116.

On March 25, 2020, the Tennessee Supreme Court continued the suspension of in- person court proceedings and the extension of deadlines. On April 24, 2020, the Court modified the suspension of in-person court proceedings and extended deadlines. Under the Court’s April 24, 2020 order, the Court reviewed and approved comprehensive written plans received from the judicial districts in Tennessee to gradually begin the conduct of in-person court proceedings. On May 26, 2020, the Court extended the state  of emergency, but eased the restrictions on in-person court proceedings, including the lifting of the suspension of jury trials, subject to certain enumerated requirements. On July 9, 2020, the Court ordered the mandatory use of face coverings.

In light of the recent significant increase in the number of COVID-19 cases in Tennessee, particularly in the rural areas of the State, and the Court’s receipt of a number of reports of instances of failure to comply with the approved comprehensive written plans of judicial districts by judges, attorneys, and litigants, including in some instances the appearance in open court of attorneys and litigants who have tested positive for COVID-19, the Court considers it necessary to take additional steps to protect all participants in the judicial system and the public at large. As a result, the Court orders:

  1. The suspension of all jury trials from November 23, 2020, through January 31, 2021, subject only to exceptions which may be granted by the Chief Justice on a case-by-case basis.
  2. The previously approved comprehensive written plans of the respective  judicial districts continue in full force and effect.
  3. The Court’s July 9, 2020 mandatory face coverings order remains in full force and effect and continues to apply to all persons who enter the courthouse for court-related business.
  4. As required by the previous orders of this Court and by the approved comprehensive written plans of judicial districts, all court matters should be conducted by means such as video conferencing and telephonic conferences, if possible, as an alternative to in-court proceedings. The Court also re- emphasizes that all in-court proceedings should be scheduled and conducted in a manner to minimize wait-time in courthouse hallways.
  5. Judges and attorneys have an ethical obligation to strictly adhere to the approved comprehensive written plans of judicial districts and to the provisions of all applicable orders of this Court related to COVID-19.
  6. No participant in a proceeding, including judges, lawyers, parties, witnesses, clerks and court officers, shall appear in court or in a court-related proceeding, including a deposition, who has tested positive for COVID-19 until the participant has strictly complied with the requirements of the Centers for Disease Control regarding isolation of individuals who have tested positive for COVID-19.
  7. This order applies statewide to all courts and court clerks’ offices except administrative courts within the Executive Branch and federal courts and federal court clerks’ offices located in Tennessee.

Under the terms of this order, the courts of Tennessee remain open, consistent  with the Judicial Branch’s obligation to mitigate the risks associated with COVID-19. Judges should work with local law enforcement and other county officials to ensure that, to the extent possible, courthouses remain accessible to carry out essential constitutional functions and time-sensitive proceedings.

Except as otherwise provided herein, the provisions of the Court’s May 26, 2020 and July 9, 2020 orders shall continue to govern, and the provisions of this order shall remain in effect until further order of this Court.

This order is intended to be interpreted broadly for protection of the public from risks associated with COVID-19.

It is so ORDERED.

One comes out, one goes in: Gardenhire misses fundraiser featuring Gov. Lee due to quarantine

Sen. Todd Gardenhire (R-Chattanooga) attends a floor session to adjust the course of the legislative session in response to the coronavirus pandemic on March 16, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Republican state Sen. Todd Gardenhire (R-Chattanooga) has missed a fundraiser for his re-election campaign because he was exposed to someone who had tested positive for COVID-19. The event was headlined by Gov. Bill Lee, who only emerged from his own two-week quarantine after a member of his security detail came down with the coronavirus.

The Chattanooga Times Free Press reports it’s the fifth time Gardenhire has gone into isolation over a potential exposure to the virus. The senator watched the fundraiser via a videostream provided by fellow Sen. Bo Watson (R-Hixson).

“I wear a mask all the time. All it takes is a split second and Bam, you got it,” Gardenhire said in a Facebook post. “Very GRATEFUL for all my friends and supporters. Thank you. Going to get tested Monday.”

Gardenhire is being challenged by Democrat Glenn Scruggs, an assistant police chief in Chattanooga.

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. 

Tennessee among 24 states on White House ‘red zone’ list

Tennessee is among 24 states on the White House’s coronavirus “red zone” list, according to the Center for Public Integrity. The state is among 13 where officials have refused to share details about the findings.

Here’s the article originally published by Liz Essley Whyte of the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit investigative news organization based in Washington, D.C.:

Twenty-four states are in the “red zone” for new coronavirus cases, according to documents the White House Coronavirus Task Force distributes to governors every week but does not publish. States in the middle of the country — North Dakota, South Dakota, Wisconsin, Montana and Utah — topped the list.

The Center for Public Integrity obtained the weekly reports, the existence of which it first revealed in July. The Trump administration has been withholding them from the public. In July, 18 states were in the red zone, with more than 100 new cases per 100,000 residents. 

The task force in its most recent reports emphasized the need for masks and testing. “Masks must be worn indoors in all public settings and group gathering sizes should be limited,” the task force told red-zone Kansas, where most counties have opted out of a statewide mask mandate. 

The Oct. 4 report to Idaho appears to be the first time the task force has explicitly recommended closing schools: “Recommend change to online K-12 classes in counties and metro areas with elevated test positivity and incidence among schoolage children and increasing hospital utilization,” the White House advised, noting that outbreaks in 10 Idaho counties may be related to school openings. The Trump administration championed opening schools this summer, and the task force reports previously generally avoided the topic of K-12 education. The Oct. 4 reports from the White House Coronavirus Task Force included a ranking of states based on their rates of new cases. States with more than 100 new cases last week per 100,000 residents were in the red zone. (Screenshot of report)

But the task force didn’t recommend the steps it advised for red zone states earlier in the pandemic, such as closing bars and limiting gatherings to 10 people or fewer. The Democrat-led House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis last month criticized the task force for watering down its recommendations over time.

Only one state, Vermont, was in the green zone for cases in the most recent report, with just six new cases per 100,000 residents in the last week.

The White House earlier told Public Integrity that it was not releasing the reports because the pandemic response should be state-led and federally supported. “The United States will not be shut down again,” White House spokesman Judd Deere said in August.

Since then, Public Integrity has contacted officials in all 50 states weekly to obtain the reports. Governors and health officials in 13 states — Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Florida, Indiana, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New Hampshire, New York, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas and West Virginia — have refused to share any so far or have not responded to repeated inquiries to multiple officials. The White House has said that states are free to share the reports if they want to do so.

The 24 states in the red zone are:
1. North Dakota
2. South Dakota
3. Wisconsin
4. Montana
5. Utah
6. Iowa
7. Nebraska
8. Idaho
9. Arkansas
10. Oklahoma
11. Missouri
12. Kansas
13. Wyoming
14. Tennessee
15. Minnesota
16. Kentucky
17. Alabama
18. Mississippi
19. Alaska
20. Nevada
21. Illinois
22. Indiana
23. Texas
24. South Carolina

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.


Hagerty reacts to Trump testing positive for COVID-19, Blackburn to get checked

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 issued the following statement following the announcement early Friday that President Donald Trump had tested positive for COVID-19:

“My family and I join Americans across the country in praying for President Trump, the First Lady and the Trump family and wish them a speedy recovery. President Trump and First Lady Trump are in the hands of the best medical doctors in America, and we are most optimistic that they will fully recover from the virus. I have seen President Trump’s work-ethic firsthand, and I know he will continue to carry out his duties while quarantining. The entire country stands united behind President Trump and First Lady Trump during this time, and we look forward to their full recovery soon.”

— Bill Hagerty

Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Brentwood) said she will get a COVID test after travelling to the debate with the president.

Update: Blackburn says the test came back negative.

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.”