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.

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.”

Continue reading

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).”

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.

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.


Pressure mounts on Lee to issue statewide stay-at-home order

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)

With 71 of 95 Tennessee counties reporting confirmed coronavirus cases, the pressure is building on Gov. Bill Lee to declare a statewide stay-at-home order.

Lee has recommended that schools remain shut through April 24, banned statewide gatherings of more than 10 people, and required bars and restaurants to limit their business to takeout and delivery service. But while cities like Nashville, Memphis, Knoxville, and Chattanooga have told non-essential businesses to shutter amid the pandemic, Lee has declined to follow suit for the rest of the state.

That has set up a situation where businesses are closed inside the city and county lines where state-at-home orders are in place, but their counterparts can operate as normal if they are located just beyond those jurisdictions.

“Tennesseans have shut down,” Lee said at a press conference in Memphis on Friday. “This state is largely closed down except for the number of folks that are moving around for the appropriate reasons.”

But Lee acknowledged “that’s not true of every Tennessean.”

The state got some negative publicity when Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear, a Democrat, urged residents living near the state line not to venture into Tennessee.

“If you are a Kentuckian living on that border, I need you to not go to Tennessee for anything other than work or helping a loved one or maybe the grocery, if it is there closer. If you ultimately go down over that border and go to a restaurant or something that’s not open in Kentucky, what you do is you bring back the coronavirus here in Kentucky,” Beshear said. “And again the sacrifice that the people inside your county are making, ultimately you don’t honor by doing that.”

Critics noted that Tennessee not only has a larger population, but that the state has conducted far more coronavirus tests than Kentucky. And infection rates are similar.


Posts and Opinions about Tennessee politics, government, and legislative news.