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April 23, 2020

Thank you for joining us for our Thursday COVID-19 briefing. We have a series of reports today from the Department of Labor, the Department of Education and the Department of Environment and Conservation. Before those reports, I will share more about our testing efforts, our efforts to get the word out to Tennesseans about how to stay safe and a preview one of the first round of industry guidance we are releasing. 

As we prepare for our second weekend of expanded COVID-19 testing, we encourage every Tennessean who isn’t feeling well or has been in contact with someone who has COVID-19 to get tested. Last weekend, more than 11,000 Tennesseans took advantage of free testing and remembered “when in doubt, get a test.” The list of those locations is on our website. 

Maria and I plan to go to the Shelby County testing site on Saturday in Frayser and look forward to seeing these efforts in action

During this pandemic, we had to capture the full attention of every Tennessean in every community – more than 6 million people across 95 counties.

Our PSA campaign “Do your part, stay apart” did just that, tallying over 20 million impressions in less than 30 days, and including Tennesseans from all across the state - each one of them joining us in the fight against COVID-19. 

As we look ahead to the re-opening of our state and getting Tennesseans safely back to work, we welcome Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood to our efforts.

As Trisha and Garth tell us – every Tennessean has played a role in slowing the spread of the virus – you stayed home – and you helped save lives.

Government can do a lot, but it’s the personal actions of each of us that will protect our neighbors and successfully flatten the curve in our state.

Eddie George, who kindly joined our PSA campaign, announced this week that his father is currently battling COVID-19. Our hearts are with the George family, and all the families across Tennessee who are weathering tragedy because of this virus.

Much of our time this week has been dedicated to economic recovery and the next steps we are considering for a phased reboot of our Tennessee economy. We are working around the clock to get Tennesseans safely back to work next week in 89 counties with the majority of businesses in a position to begin opening their doors next week. 

However, as we consider federal best practices, we want to be clear that not every industry will be able to immediately safely open. 

Tomorrow morning, we will be holding a special press briefing to debut our first round of industry guidance for the restaurant and retail industries as we aim to get these businesses open safely at 50% capacity next week. 

Restaurants operating at 50% capacity and following the guidelines will be allowed to open on Monday. Retail outfits operating at 50% capacity and following the guidance will be allowed to open next Wednesday.  

We look forward to hearing more details with you about this tomorrow as we announce our first round of safe reopening guidance. 

 

Governor Bill Lee:

I have a number of folks here to answer any questions and we're happy to take your questions.

Speaker 2:

Thank you, governor. First we'll go to Natalie Alison with The Tennessean. Natalie, your line is open.

Natalie:

Hi governor.

Speaker 2:

Hey Natalie.

Natalie:

I wanted to ask you... Hello. How have you spoken to the White House about Tennessee's plans to reopen next week?

Governor Bill Lee:

Well, we have talked with the White House over phone calls that have been between the president and or the vice president and governors. I have not had a specific call directly myself with either of those two one-on-one, but we're working with their team. We've had conversations with multiple members of their medical team and others that are engaged in this fight against COVID-19, so we've had a connection. And certainly we have used federal guidance to inform our decisions going forward.

Natalie:

Then a second question, and this may be for Director McWhorter. Can you walk us through the process right now of obtaining antibody tests? I know you have mentioned those are supposed to be coming in a few weeks, but just practically, what is that process for securing those? And then about how many do you think Tennessee can secure and then what would realistically that look like as far as availability to the general public and who could get those?

Governor Bill Lee:

Yeah. Natalie, I'm going to let Dr. Piercey answer that first, and then Stuart can add it if necessary.

Dr. Piercey:

Yeah, actually I plan to talk about antibody testing on Monday. Sort of give somewhat of a deeper dive like I did a couple of days ago on contact tracing, so I think you might find that interesting. But in the meantime we have ordered several thousand antibody tests and are working on a strategy to roll that out. A little preview of what we'll talk about on Monday. There are a lot of antibody tests on the market that are not FDA approved and that really are not reliable. So I want to be able to provide guidance on which are the good ones, and which ones we should avoid. And some things that antibody tests tell us, and some things that they don't. We are also going to be issuing guidance to providers statewide, we're the licensing agency for all healthcare providers, to give them a better sense of the tests that they should rely upon and ones that perhaps they should avoid. So sorry to punt it a few days down the road, but we do intend to give guidance on that early next week.

Speaker 2:

Next, we'll go to Jonathan Mattise with the AP. Jonathan, your line is open.

Johnathan Mattise:

Hey governor, thanks for taking my question. It looks like Bledsoe County Correctional Complex now has 345 positive cases and another 1,000 that are still pending. I was wondering if regarding that, is there a consideration to move towards testing all inmates across the state prison system since the majority of facilities have not had any testing at this point or at least minimal testing?

Dr. Piercey:

So you're correct. We are watching the Bledsoe numbers and there is a substantial number of positive cases at Bledsoe and those are reflected in the Bledsoe county numbers because the prison is in Bledsoe County. So when you look at the county by county breakdown, you will see the prison numbers in that. That is reflective of at least three different populations, the inmate population, the staff at that prison, as well as just the community at large. I would note that the community at large is a very, very small proportion of the entire Bledsoe County number and you need to keep that in mind when you're looking at those numbers.

Dr. Piercey:

Regarding other prisons, I think we talked about it a few days ago, but there've been a couple of other prisons that have had small clusters, Northwest Correctional and the Turney Center, and one or two, just a very low number at Trousdale. But Northwest and Turney, we have done the expanded, what we call unit-based testing, where we've tested several hundred there. Interestingly, I don't have the very final numbers, but we have almost all of those results back and interestingly, those percentages were really low there, which is a good thing. It's very different than it was at Bledsoe. We haven't had any positive cases at any other prisons, but we have done testing at other prisons of symptomatic inmates. And if any of the inmates there or staff come positive, we will do that tiered based approach just like we've done at the other prisons.

Johnathan Mattise:

Thank you.

Speaker 2:

Next we'll go to Andy Sher with the Times Free Press. Andy, your line is open.

Andy Sher:

Thank you, governor. Let me ask you this, in terms of how this order effecting retail and restaurants and going forward works out. So this applies to 89 of the state's 95 counties, except for the big 6. In Hamilton County, you've got the mayor of Hamilton County who's interested in going along with whatever guidance that you provide, whereas the mayor says he's still assessing and has not made a decision and he wants to be very careful. So who prevails in that case?

Governor Bill Lee:

We have been talking with every one of those mayors and all of the counties that are not included in our 89 counties. The 89 counties are those who have health departments that are overseen by the state. And those other counties have their own health departments that are overseeing otherwise. And we've actually been very pleased with and working very closely with each one of those mayors as they develop their own strategies in counties and cities, about how it is that they're going to safely reopen their economies with regard to the guidelines that they will be providing for businesses, and the timing.

Governor Bill Lee:

One of the things that we're trying to do as leaders in this state is to work together. And we have in fact done that in a very effective way. So I think you're going to be seeing plans from those other six counties as time rolls on. You're going to see plans that they've developed. And those are plans that have been shared with us and we will share with them our plans, so that we make sure that we can open our state together safely. So I commend the leaders in those counties for the work that they're doing.

Andy Sher:

Well, at this point, I mean if the mayor of Hamilton County and 7 of the 10 cities want to go along with your guidance, for the other 89 beginning Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, does that mean... I mean, you could wind up with a situation where you've got what less standards in Hamilton County unincorporated and then seven of the smaller cities and then the largest city, Chattanooga, you've got stricter guidance. Do you not?

Governor Bill Lee:

Yeah. Well let me just say, Andy, what we have is leaders across this state working together to roll out plans that are going to be complimentary to one another. We see that happening. That's what's going to happen. That's what we expect to happen. And our work together with those mayors has been very encouraging to me. So I think that's what we're going to see. There are a number of scenarios, but that's what we're going to see, as it happens across the next few weeks.

Andy Sher:

And if I could follow up with one more question. In Georgia, of course the governor there was opening up bowling alleys, beaches and everything else. And got sort of a rap on the knuckles, so to speak, from president Trump. At this point, are you looking at doing bowling alleys and barbershops and nail salons and a lot of close, hands-on type business activity?

Governor Bill Lee:

What we're looking at doing is a phased reopening that safely allows our economy to open in steps. And we announced today that those first steps were going to be given real clear guidance on restaurants and retails businesses. And then we'll make decisions about other businesses as we said. We want to have the majority of businesses open before May 1st. And that will actually happen when we open retail and restaurants. Those are the vast majority of businesses that have been closed across the state. And some businesses will not be able to open safely, immediately, but we'll be making those in the days ahead.

Andy Sher:

Thank you, sir.

Gov. Bill Lee:

Thank you.

Speaker 2:

Next we'll go to Sergio Martinez-Beltran with WPLN. Sergio, your line is open.

Sergio:

Thank you,and good afternoon, Governor. As you know, the mayor of Nashville presented today his plan to reopen businesses, Davidson County. It's a step by step plan. It's also a phased plan, like you're talking about, the state one. But I'm wondering, I mean can you go a little bit deeper on like what's the plan for reopening? I mean before moving to the next phase, is the state expected to maybe see a decrease in the average number of positive cases before moving to the next opening phase?

Gov. Bill Lee:

Well, I think the most important thing is phase one. So you know, I have for weeks taken the approach that we need to follow data in order to make decisions. That's how we made decisions on the front end of this and that's how we'll make decisions on the back end of this, is take one step at a time based on the information and the data that we have. The data that we have right now shows that we are prepared to take the first step and phase one. And for us what that means is opening up retail and restaurants. We'll be making decisions about the remainder of businesses that it will be opened in this phase one, and then we will follow data and we will follow guidelines and we will watch what's happening across our state, because the public safety is of utmost importance to us. The safety of Tennesseans, the way that we can do this going forward with social distancing. Social distancing is a critical component of every one of our guidelines that we'll be bringing forth for opening each one of these businesses. That's the way that we'll remain safe, but we'll also watch daily the information that will be provided to us from the Tennessee Hospital Association, from case counts, from areas all across the state. Every County will be watching and that is what will inform the next steps that we take in this phased reopening of our economy.

Sergio:

Follow up governor, how do we make sure that we don't mess up this first phase and that we don't have to go back to a stay at home? I mean are we requiring employees to wear masks? Or like employers to take the temperature of the employees? How are we making sure we don't go back?

Gov. Bill Lee:

Yeah, so tomorrow we'll be actually putting out our first round of detailed guidelines for businesses, for employees, for customers, and those will include a wide array of safety measures that will have to be implemented in order for us to protect the public. And they will include temperature checks and masks and social distancing requirements. There will be a number of things that you will see clearly detailed in our plan. It's one of the reasons that we've worked so hard over the last couple of weeks, and even previous to that with our industry advisory council, we've worked so hard to provide a very detailed plan that's well thought through, because what is most important is the safety of Tennesseean. We want them to feel safe when they go back to work. We want them to feel safe when they go to a restaurant or go to a retail outlet. And thus we have taken some very clear steps to provide those guidelines and we'll be providing details of those tomorrow.

Sergio:

Thank you governor.

Gov. Bill Lee:

Thank you.

Speaker 2:

And so we'll go to Chris Bongard with WKRN. Chris, your line is open.

Chris:

Governor, yesterday, I believe you talked about the guidance on how to spend the federal stimulus money, at least a good hunk of it. Have you had any more guidance or any guidance since then and when do you expect to get it? I believe yesterday you talked about perhaps next week, but I just want to clarify that.

Gov. Bill Lee:

Yeah, well there are pieces of guidance coming every day. As commissioner Schwinn said, there was guidance just today from the Department of Education around some of those funds. I was on a phone call today with our federal delegation, the senators and congressmen from, from all across our state who are engaged in the federal level. And we have daily interaction with what's happening there. So as that guidance comes out, then we utilize that guidance to make decisions. But much of it is yet to come out, but we do think it's coming in the next few days, Chris.

Chris:

Okay. Thank you governor. Thank you.

Speaker 3:

Next we'll go to Marta Aldrich with Chalkbeat. Marta, your line is open.

Marta:

Thank you. I have two questions for commissioner Schwinn. This is about care spending for schools.

Commissioner Schwinn:

Sure.

Marta:

First, if it's a local decision how to spend their shares of the federal plot that totals about 234 million. Will you encourage districts to spend money on learning recovery programs that could extend the school day or the school year or other ways of adding instructional time? And second, the state will keep about 26 million of the CARE's education money. How do you expect to spend that portion to support students in schools through this time?

Commissioner Schwinn:

Sure. So great questions. I think as you know, we've had the guidance from the US Department of Education for just over an hour and a half now. So we are certainly looking through all of the assurance that have come with that. There are four different sections of assurances that we are reviewing that will help to guide any guides that we then discuss with our local districts. We have been in conversations with our, we speak with them three times per week. We also have individual calls through our core offices. We certainly have been in contact with advocacy groups and organizations across the state, and we do expect to engage with legislative leadership related to the best use of funds at the state level in terms of our state set aside and then also any kind of direction, guidance, or support we need to offer to our districts. What I will say is that in every conversation I've had, whether email, text, or a phone calls with our superintendents, we are all on the same page that these funds, understanding their one-time relief funds, must be used to support the students and educators in the state of Tennessee. That is our goal. That will remain our goal and I think any type of planning that accompanies these funds, we'll have that 100% in mind.

Marta:

Thank you.

Gov. Bill Lee:

Thank you.

Speaker 3:

Next we'll go to Ainsley Daniel with WJHL. Ainsley, your line is open.

Ainsley:

Hi Governor Lee, thank you again for taking our questions. I have a couple for you. So for the first one, according to the federal guidelines, businesses are encouraged to take temperatures, provide masks, and amp up sanitation as we open back up for phase one. However, most of these items and resources are out of stock. So how do you suggest businesses safely opened back up if these items are still largely unavailable?

Gov. Bill Lee:

Yeah, well as I said, tomorrow we're going to be providing very specific guidance on how businesses will open up. Multiple industries have different needs, multiple industries have different guidelines with how it is that they can safely operate and how they can provide that safety, to both their customers and to their employees. And those are the types of things that we'll be laying out tomorrow morning.

Ainsley:

And a follow up to that. What are the local government's roles in facilitating phase one and making sure everyone does have those resources and that these businesses are abiding by these rules?

Gov. Bill Lee:

Yeah. What we really believe is that as we develop these guidelines, we want to offer support where we can to businesses to be able to follow these guidelines. That support will look different ways depending on the business, depending on the community. And we're working with industry groups, in fact, and those industry groups themselves will be providing support for their own industries. But all of that will be developed and it will be determined over the next couple of weeks as we provide guidance starting tomorrow morning. And as those companies begin to open starting Monday. There are a lot of companies, a lot of industries that'll be opening in different times over the next several weeks. And that's how we will determine just how those businesses will operate safely.

Ainsley:

And finally, how long do you expect Tennessee to be in phase one of reopening and do you have a goal?

Gov. Bill Lee:

The goal is when the data shows that we are in a place where we can open and go to phase two. Just like all of the decisions that we have made along the way, we want to be very careful. We want to be very logical and methodical about how we make these decisions and that is what we'll do going forward, just in the same way that we did to get to where we are today. And by the way, where we are today is because of the efforts of Tennesseans. You have done what had to be done. You have done your part to stay home. People have made tremendous sacrifice. Many people have had great economic loss as a result of this. So Tennesseans have paid a price and worked hard to get here. But where we are here is at the place that we can begin to do this phased reopening and we're grateful that we're at that spot.

Ainsley:

Thank you governor.

Gov. Bill Lee:

Thank you.

Speaker 2:

Thanks. Next, we'll go to Carise Jacqueline with WSMV. Carise, your line is open.

Carise:

Yes. Hi, good afternoon Governor and everyone. Thank you again for answering our questions. My first question goes out basically to the Department of Labor.

Carise:

Earlier today, the Department of Labor tweeted out that they've seen a significant... well, for the second conservative weeks, there's been a decrease in the number people filing for unemployment.

Carise:

But a lot of our viewers and a lot of people that have responded to that see that as a joke because they can't get through and they cannot get processed. So my question is, what is being done to help those people get processed?

Carise:

Is that being calculated as well as in terms of the amount of people that are filing for that and are still in a state of limbo? And then what is being done to help with the technical issues that people continue to have?

Speaker 3:

Yes. So let me take the second one first. We are in the process of doing another needed upgrade for the system and when the system works well, things work well, all the way around.

Speaker 3:

We're starting to stagger certifications by social security number, which has helped us quite a bit and manage the scheduled downtime so we can process payments until we get that extra computing capacity that we need. So that part of the equation is making sure, as I talked about earlier, that we meet that challenge of that upgrade.

Speaker 3:

In terms of new claims coming in, if there is a delay there could be. We do know again that there's somewhere in the range of 70,000 or so who are on that PUA sole proprietor standpoint who, like I mentioned earlier, we will begin processing those for payment. Then, within the next day begin that process and they should be able to see their benefits received next week.

Carise:

And then I have one final question. When it comes to the amount of money that the Department of Labor has, to help out unemployment, what is the total number that we're noticing and has that been brought down from the federal government? In terms of how much money does the Department of Labor spend on all these unemployment claims?

Speaker 3:

So that's a very good question, and there's, there's a few different buckets of money. Any of the money for the additional $600 is federal. Money for the programs to provide benefits for the sole proprietors and 1099 employees is all federal as well, including the extra $600 for those folks.

Speaker 3:

The traditional claims insurance is handled by an insurance trust fund, which is basically a savings account and it's in really good shape. It's one of the best shapes in the country, but we are constantly monitoring that because of the volume, the unprecedented volume that we have.

Speaker 3:

And so that is something that we're monitoring, but at the start of this, we were in very good shape, a lot better really than many other states.

Carise:

Thank you.

Speaker 2:

It's all the time we have for questions today.