covid-19

The doors of the Senate shall be open again

The Senate Education Committee meets on March 16, 2020, amid a ban on public attendance in the Cordell Hull Building (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

The Senate is reopening to the public after shutting down most access during the pandemic. According to a Tennessee Lobbyists Association memo, the upper chamber is dropping most of the restrictions it had imposed when COVID-19 struck last year. The House restrictions were never as wide-ranging to begin with, and most its mitigation efforts were lifted last month.

Here is the memo outlining the Senate changes:

TLA Members,

We were notified of the following changes this evening:

Due to increased vaccine availability and the overall decline in the spread of COVID -19, Lt. Governor McNally will be implementing revised building protocols beginning Monday, March 8. These protocols apply to the 7th Floor of Cordell Hull Building, Senate Hearing Room I and Senate Floor Sessions:

1. Members of the public will be admitted to the Cordell Hull Building using the main entrance on Rep. John Lewis Way and will have elevator access to the 7th Floor.

2. Until elevator programming is adjusted, General Assembly staff will assist the public with elevator access to the 7th floor. Once programming is complete, elevator access for the public will be open.

3. Members of the public are encouraged not to enter a member’s office without an appointment.

4. Senate Hearing Room I will be open to the public with limited seating. So-cial distancing and capacity restrictions shall be maintained and enforced.

4. The public may access the Capitol through the tunnel for Senate Floor Sessions. One elevator will be designated for members only for session.

5. The Senate Gallery is open with limited seating available for the public and reserved seating for media. Social distancing and capacity restrictions shall be maintained.

6. The area outside the Senate Chamber is reserved for Senate staff.

7. The 8th Floor and 7th floor Senate Conference Rooms remain closed.

8. There shall be no Days on the Hill, group meetings or tours.

9. Appropriate CDC facial coverings are required in the Senate facilities of the Cordell Hull Building and the Capitol, including the tunnel.

10. Individuals with 2021 Photo Identification Badges issued by the General Assembly may access the Cordell Hull Building through the entrance on 6th Avenue.

11. The north elevator is reserved for members and staff, no public use.

12. Committee chairs may choose in-person or remote testimony for their committee meetings.

The protocols are subject to modification at any time.

COVID diagnosis in Senate raises concerns (UPDATED)

The Senate meets in Nashville on June 1, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

A state senator has tested positive for COVID-19 since the start of the special session and other lawmakers and staffers may have been exposed, The Tennessee Journal has learned.

UPDATE: Sen. Ed Jackson (R-Jackson) has confirmed he has tested positive:

“I was informed yesterday afternoon that I have tested positive for COVID-19.  I am quarantining at home with mild symptoms,” Jackson said in a statement. “I have received excellent care and am thankful for all of our health professionals who are on the front lines in fighting this virus.”

One further senator is believed to be in quarantine, while another is remaining on duty because he already had COVID-19. The office of legislative adminstration declined to confirm or deny any infections due to privacy concerns.

The incident comes despite enhanced measures the Senate has taken to try to fight the spread of COVID-19. The upper chamber has required social distancing between members in committees and on the floor while banning the public from its meetings. But nothing prevents lawmakers from congregating in their offices, elevators, or hallways of the Capitol complex.

At least nine House members have been diagnosed with COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic.

Dems’ effort to require face coverings punted in House

House members attend a floor session in Nashville on Jan. 12, 2021. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Democrats’ efforts to amend House rules to require masks be worn in committees and on the floor have been put off by the chamber’s Republican supermajority.

Rep. G.A. Hardaway (D-Memphis) made the motion on Friday, a day after House members had approved their rules for the 112th General Assembly. Speaker Pro Tem Pat Marsh (R-Shelbyville), who chairs the Rules Committee, said every member had been given the opportunity to suggest amendments when the panel met earlier in the week. No mask rule was introduced at that time, so Marsh made the motion to send Hardaway’s proposal back to the committee. It’s unclear when the panel will meet again.

At least 10 House members have tested positive for COVID-19 so far. They are:

  • Bill Beck (D-Nashville)
  • David Byrd (R-Waynesboro)
  • Karen Camper (D-Memphis)
  • Kent Calfee (R-Kingston)
  • Scott Cepicky (R-Culleoka)
  • Mike Carter (R-Ooltewah)
  • Jeremy Faison (R-Cosby)
  • Torrey Harris (D-Memphis)
  • Gary Hicks (R-Rogersville)
  • Kevin Vaughan (R-Collierville)

In the Senate, Mike Bell (R-Riceville), Ed Jackson (R-Jackson), and Page Walley (R-Bolivar) have had COVID-19.

All have recovered except Byrd, who at last report remained on a ventilator at a Nashville hospital.

Senate to block public access to committee floor

The Senate meets in Nashville on June 1, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

The state Senate will continue to bar public access to committee meetings during the upcoming legislative session. According to guidelines shared with members, the restrictions will mirror the COVID-19 mitigation steps taken by the upper chamber last summer.

The House is expected to continue to allow access by lobbyists and other members of the public.

Here’s is the memo sent by Senate Clerk Russell Humphrey:

To:     Members of the Senate, 112th General Assembly

From:   Russell A. Humphrey, Chief Clerk

In consideration of the infection rates and State of Tennessee COVID-19 guidelines, Mr. Speaker McNally and Senate Leadership have set the following protocols:

  *   The Senate side of the first floor of the Cordell Hull Building and the Senate Hearing Room are only to be utilized by Senators and authorized staff.

  *   On the 7th Floor of the Cordell Hull Building only Senate Members, Senate Staff, and appointments pre-scheduled by the pubic are authorized on the floor.  Please notify Ms. Connie Ridley of Senators appointments with members of the public the afternoon in advance.  Once appointments are concluded, guest must leave the floor.

  *   The Senate Chamber and the Senate Hearing Room are arranged to provide seating at a minimum physical distance of six feet. Only Senate Members, limited Clerk’s staff, and a press pool reporter are allowed in the Senate Chamber.

  *   Members are requested to wear face covering that covers both the mouth and nose while in public areas, including the Senate Chamber and Senate Hearing Room.

  *   Staff are required to wear face covering that covers both the mouth and nose while in public areas, including the Senate Chamber and Senate Hearing Room.

  *   Testimony in Committee meetings by non-members will be conducted remotely only. Please let the Chairman’s office know if you have someone to testify on a matter.

  *   Due to space limitations, seating is limited to staff and press in the Senate Hearing Room and the Senate Gallery.

  *   No accommodations are available for Days on the Hill or local, regional or state Leadership Groups.

These protocols shall remain in effect until further notice.  Mr. Speaker McNally ask you to be flexible, as these will change as conditions improved. Please do not hesitate to contact me if you have any questions.

Lee administration details $100M literacy initiative

Gov. Bill Lee’s administration is detailing its $100 million literacy initiative called Reading 360.

Here’s the release from the state Education Department:

Nashville, TN—Today, the Tennessee Department of Education released details on a new $100 million statewide initiative, “Reading 360,” to ensure Tennessee districts, teachers, and families are equipped with tools and resources to help students read on grade level by third grade.

To help support literacy development in Tennessee, the state will leverage approximately $60 million of one-time federal COVID-19 relief funding and $40 million in federal grant funding to immediately launch Reading 360 and invest in optional reading resources and supports at no cost to the state or districts.

Reading 360 will provide optional grants and resources to help more Tennessee students develop strong phonics-based reading skills by supporting districts, teachers, and families.

“When our students succeed our entire state prospers, and we know that reading on grade level is foundational to the success of every student, both in and out of the classroom,” said Tennessee Governor Bill Lee. “Reading 360 will give critical supports to districts and educators so we can address this challenge urgently and put Tennessee’s students on the right track to grow and thrive.”

“In the last decade, Tennessee has done remarkable work to increase expectations for student learning and to improve outcomes for our kids. Now, we are uniquely positioned to tackle literacy with urgency and can do so from all sides,” said Commissioner Penny Schwinn. “Our state has a golden opportunity to lead the nation in literacy, and most importantly, accelerate progress for our students.”

Reading is the foundation to all learning and reading proficiently by third grade is a critical milestone for every student. Before the pandemic, only one third of third graders in Tennessee had met expectations in English Language Arts (ELA), the best standardized proxy for reading achievement. Our state has not yet comprehensively and effectively addressed this challenge, and after a year disrupted by COVID-19, school building closures and virtual learning, the stakes are higher than ever for our students.

Through optional grants to districts, students and families will have access to tutoring and online supports to help develop foundational skills in literacy. Tennessee educators will have access to free training and professional development, phonics kits and materials to use in their classrooms, and stipends for training. Districts will have access to a suite of tools and resources to support their teachers and schools in implementing strong reading instruction for all students.

Tennessee has led the nation in academic gains for students over the past decade, and most recently in the K-12 crisis response to COVID-19. Tennessee is now poised not just to protect students, teachers, and schools in the face of an unprecedented global pandemic, but to accelerate student learning further and faster than ever before.

Year in Review: The most viewed TNJ blog posts of 2020

Republican Bill Hagerty speaks to a reporter before casting his early vote in Nashville on Oct. 21, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Here are the Top 10 most viewed stories on the TNJ: On the Hill blog this year.

1. June 11: Sethi seeks to make political gain out of coronavirus pandemic.

2. May 11: Things get interesting in the open 1st District race.

3. Aug. 5: Hagerty does some creative accounting to obscure Romney donation.

4. March 30: Lee’s stay-at home order in detail.

5. April 20: Protest leader demands free refills.

6. April 20: The lockdown ends.

7. July 16: Hagerty launches the negative ad barrage.

8. Dec. 15: We’re No. 1.

9. Jan. 19: In like Flinn.

10. Nov. 13: Most signed, some didn’t.

How the Tennessee delegation voted on the COVID relief package

Marsha Blackburn speaks at a business forum in Nashville on Aug. 15, 2018. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Tennessee’s congressional delegation was divided on the $900 billion COVID-19 relief package that includes $600 in direct payments to most Americans.

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Maryville) voted in favor, while Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Brentwood) was one of just six members to vote against the measure in the upper chamber.

Among the Republicans in the House, Reps. Tim Burchett of Knoxville, Scott DesJarlais of Winchester, Mark Green of Ashland City, and John Rose of Cookeville were among the 53 no votes.

Fellow GOP Reps. Chuck Fleischmann of Chattanooga, David Kustoff of Memphis, and Phil Roe of Johnson City voted in favor, as did Democrats Jim Cooper of Nashville and Steve Cohen of Memphis.

The package passed the Senate on a 92-6 vote and the House 359-53. While Tennessee holds 2% of the seats in Congress, the state’s members accounted for 8.5% of the votes against the stimulus package.

Read Gov. Lee’s address on COVID-19

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

Here is Gov. Bill Lee’s address on COVID-19, as prepared for delivery on Sunday evening. The governor lauded local mayors for imposing mask mandates, but stopped short of issuing one for the whole state.

Good evening Tennesseans. It’s Christmas week, ordinarily a time when families across the state are gathering to celebrate. Unfortunately, these are not ordinary times. We are in a global pandemic that’s been crippling our country for months and now Tennessee is ground zero for a surge in sickness. I am speaking with you tonight because I want to be clear with where we are and what we need to do together to get through this.

We now have around 10,000 Tennesseans getting sick every day. To put that in perspective, that’s three times where we were around Halloween. Thousands of our neighbors are in the hospital tonight. More than 100 people are dying each day. We are in a war. With the arrivals of the first vaccine, we have launched an offensive that will end this war. But it is the next few weeks that is going to be the most critical for our state.

We have seen firsthand that Thanksgiving gatherings and extended time indoors have been the principal driver in spreading COVID-19 like wildfire. It only took a matter of days to see gatherings around Thanksgiving translate into a record level of sickness. Tennessee cannot sustain a similar surge after Christmas or New Year’s. Tonight, I am asking you to make some hard decisions.

I am asking you to not engage in indoor gatherings for the holidays that include anyone outside your household. Family time and celebrations are important. I understand deeply how much Tennessee families need each other. But we must do all that we can to blunt this surge and keep more Tennesseans from getting sick.

But beyond family gatherings and what I am asking you to do in your own home, we need to address public gatherings through these important weeks, as well.

I am signing an order that will limit indoor public gatherings to 10 people.

I believe high school sports are important for our kids and they should continue. In coordination with the TSSAA, we are limiting attendance at indoor sporting events.

We know that it is gatherings that have caused this surge. That is why we are making these decisions around gatherings that will help us blunt the rise in cases.

Additionally, I am asking business owners to let employees work from home for the next 30 days. If work from home is not available, masks should be worn at work. Plain and simple.

I want to talk about the importance of wearing masks around people who do not live in your home. Right now, 70% of Tennesseans are under a mask requirement. I commend the local officials who have implemented mask requirements. Because of that, 80% of Tennesseans report they wear their masks most or all of the time and I thank them for doing this. We need them to continue and the remaining 20% to wear a mask and protect their health.

Many think a statewide mandate would improve mask wearing, many think it would have the opposite effect. This has been a heavily politicized issue. Please do not get caught up in that and don’t misunderstand my belief in local government on this issue. Masks work and I want every Tennessean to wear one.

Tennesseans have two weapons that they must use in the next 30 days: only gather with your household and wear a mask.

The State of Tennessee will continue to mobilize every effective resource in this war. COVID testing is available to everyone free of charge. Vaccines are being delivered to every corner of the state. We are getting hundreds of thousands of vaccines out to our nursing home residents and health care workers so they can be vaccinated.

As our hospitals face this surge of sick Tennesseans, we have authorized the National Guard medics to work in hospitals and provide lifesaving care. We have established COVID specific nursing homes so that we protect the most vulnerable and help hospitals free up critical bedspace. We will continue to utilize every effective resource but government cannot do this alone.

We are in a cold, cruel phase of this pandemic. It will get worse before it gets better. I know you are tired. But we have got to double down. I am reminded of Winston Churchill’s words during the darkest days of World War II: “It would be foolish to disguise the gravity of the hour. It would be still more foolish to lose heart and courage.”

I believe in the courage of Tennesseans to face this darkest hour. I believe that victory will be ours and we have the power to determine how long this extends. If we each do our part, we will win and move to a new season of health and prosperity for our state.

I extend my heartfelt thanks to each Tennessean for their attention and care tonight. God bless the State of Tennessee.

First lady diagnosed with COVID-19, Gov. Lee to address state

Gov. Bill Lee and his wife, Maria, at his inauguration celebration in Nashville on Jan. 19, 2019. (Erik Schelzig)

First Lady Maria Lee has been diagnosed with COVID-19 and Gov. Bill Lee is planning to give a statewide address on the worsening pandemic on Sunday.

The governor has shown no symptoms but plans to quarantine out of an abundance of caution.

Here’s a statement from Lee:

Maria began exhibiting mild symptoms of COVID-19 and it was confirmed this afternoon that she has tested positive. I am feeling well with no symptoms and have tested negative for COVID-19. Out of an abundance of caution, I will be quarantining at the Governor’s Residence and still plan to address Tennesseans about the COVID-19 surge tomorrow at 7 p.m. CDT

Tennessee launches COVID-19 vaccination dashboard

Gov. Bill Lee speaks to reporters during budget hearings in Nashville on Nov. 9, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Gov. Bill Lee’s administration launched a new COVID-19 vaccination dashboard on Friday.

Here’s a release from the state Health Department:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The Tennessee Department of Health will provide data on COVID-19 vaccines administered in the state via a new dashboard to be provided online at www.tn.gov/health/cedep/ncov/covid-19-vaccine-information.html. This dashboard will launch Dec. 18 and will be updated each Tuesday and Friday.

Tennessee’s COVID-19 Vaccination Reporting dashboard will include data on total vaccinations reported, vaccinations reported in the last day and within the last week. The dashboard will also display the percentage of each county’s population that has been vaccinated. The first reports shared via this dashboard will reflect Tennesseans who have received their first dose of COVID-19 vaccine. Future versions will also provide data on Tennesseans who have been fully vaccinated with both their first and second doses of COVID-19 vaccine.

“We are eager to offer this tool to track our progress in implementing Tennessee’s COVID-19 Vaccination Plan and making this important preventive measure available to Tennesseans in every county of our state,” said Tennessee Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey, MD, MBA, FAAP.

TDH continues to provide daily COVID-19 data reports and will publish these reports by 5 p.m. Central time daily effective on Friday, Dec. 18.
Tennessee’s COVID-19 Vaccination Plan was last updated Dec. 2 and will be modified as more is learned about the vaccines Tennessee will receive. The plan is available online at www.tn.gov/content/dam/tn/health/documents/cedep/novel-coronavirus/COVID-19_Vaccination_Plan.pdf.

Tennessee’s local health departments continue to offer COVID-19 testing five days a week at no charge to those wishing to be tested. TDH testing sites across the state will employ self-testing kits for adults three days a week beginning December 21, to allow staff members to transition to vaccination of frontline health care providers and first responders. Find testing hours and contact information for TDH health department testing sites online at https://covid19.tn.gov/testing-sites/.

The mission of the Tennessee Department of Health is to protect, promote and improve the health and prosperity of people in Tennessee. Learn more about TDH services and programs at www.tn.gov/health.