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April 27, 2020

Thank you for joining me for our Monday COVID-19 briefing as we address the ongoing public health crisis in our state and keep an eye forward about beginning the process of economic recovery. 

We’re opening up restaurants and retail stores this week at 50% capacity in 89 of our counties. We’re asking these businesses to make what we’re calling the Tennessee Pledge. The Tennessee Pledge asks businesses to provide safe working conditions for their employees and customers. 

We’re also asking employees to commit to protecting themselves, their co-workers and the customers they serve. And we’re giving them very specific and detailed guidelines to help them do that. While we highlighted restaurants and retail last week, we also issued universal business guidance that is available on our website that we urge every Tennessee business to follow. 

Our economic recovery efforts are about providing businesses the tools they need to forge a methodical, data-backed way forward as we fight this public health crisis. 

We are pleased to see restaurants opening today and the great efforts they are making to adopt the Tennessee Pledge. I noticed that Puckett’s Restaurants welcomed customers to breakfast this morning and was utilizing personal protective equipment and good customer spacing. That is the essence of the Tennessee Pledge and we commend your work to keep employees and customers safe. 

While many Tennesseans start the process of safely returning to work, we remind businesses that have utilized the work from home model to continue to do so wherever possible. At the state level, we will continue to keep employees working from home until May 26th. This means that state services can continue without disruption as we work towards the gradual return of working in office. 

We know that social distancing works and it’s critical and we can’t just throw the doors open and pretend like this very serious health risk doesn’t exist. We’ve cracked the door open to give especially small businesses and unemployed workers a little bit of hope that there’s something beyond where we are right now. As one in six Tennesseans faces unemployment, cracking the door open on our economy allows us all to see a little light and know that it’s not going to be this way forever. 

Tennesseans have made tremendous sacrifices throughout this process and we recognize the implications that these decisions have on lives and livelihoods moving forward. The State of Tennessee will continue to weigh appropriate measures to ensure we are fiscally conservative through this time. To this end, I have directed the Department of Finance & Administration to temporarily freeze any new non-mission critical hires to our state’s workforce.

During our time today, I will discuss our call with the White House, our expanded testing efforts over the weekend and the return of elective procedures at our hospitals. We will also preview our efforts to begin antibody testing in Tennessee. 

Case Count

  • 9,918 confirmed cases 
  • 184 confirmed deaths 
  • 837 hospitalizations 
  • 4,720 recovered 
  • 154,402 total tested 

Earlier today, I participated in our weekly call with the White House. There was significant conversation around rebooting the economy and expanding testing, both of which we are pursuing in Tennessee. 

The Trump Administration continues to be accessible and insightful as we work together. 

Over the weekend, we continued our efforts to expand testing so that any Tennessean, regardless of symptoms. With the help of the National Guard and department of health personnel, we conducted 7,000 tests. Our Unified-Command Group has conducted more than 18,000 tests in a two-week period and contributed to the more than 150,000 tests that have been processed in our state to date. 

Aggressive testing is key to our reopen strategy. Tennesseans can receive a free COVID-19 test 5 days a week at their local health department. We need more Tennesseans to take advantage of this service, especially those who begin returning to work during our phased re-open. 

On Friday, we’re also going to start back elective medical procedures so we can get nurses and other hospital workers back to work. We feel it is important to get hospitals back online with elective procedures so Tennesseans can safely resume more routine services, including scheduling quality of life procedures. Procedures like routine screenings and joint replacements are included in this first wave. 

As I said we’re cracking the door. I would like to remind you that there will be some businesses that will not be slated for potential re-opening until later in May. 

Close contact services will continue to be on hold for at least the next couple of weeks. This includes barber or salon services, tattoo parlors massages - services that are virtually impossible to socially distance while delivering. We’re going to get those open as soon as we can but we want to make sure we have appropriate guidance in place and an adequate supply of masks, gloves, and other PPE. 

Later this week we will have more to say about guidelines for gyms as well as guidance for houses of worship. Tennesseans must remember that social distancing, good hygiene and taking personal responsibility for health is going to be the only way our state recovers. Remember to do your part and stay apart and also, when in doubt, get a test. 

Governor:

Happy to open it up for questions now.

Interviewer:

Thank you, Governor. First, we'll go to Kim Crusey with the AP. Kim your line is open.

Kim Crusey:

Hi governor. Just hoping you've could help maybe shine some light on what happened over the weekend, with a different clarification that your office provided to local leaders regarding how much control they had on reopening their city. Basically, talking about the City of Chattanooga where the mayor has come out that he doesn't have local control to re-open the city and instead is a county issue. This tossed a lot of people off guard. Can you explain what happened there?

Governor:

Yeah. There are 89 counties in the state that the local health department is administered by the state. The state has a guidance or, and authority over 89 of the 95 counties. Six counties have their own health departments and those health departments are, or will make the decisions about reopening for example in those communities at the guidance of the health work. We want this to be data driven decisions that are informed about public health officials. Those public health officials are in each county's health department.

Kim Crusey:

Right. But do you think your office was clear enough in those instructions when the mayor of Chattanooga says he do not want to re-open his city, and yet he has hands are tied. He's just now finding out on Sunday that he can't reopen the city. Do you think your office was clear enough in your instruction?

Governor:

I talk to those mayors personally every week. We've talked about efforts to coordinate. Our economic recovery group has been in contact with each of those county mayors, city mayors. Many of them have supplied us with their plans and there's been a real effort to make those opening strategies complimentary. I think that we've worked really hard as leaders. I've actually been very pleased with the way the leaders across the state have worked, to make sure that we open the state in a way that's safer to Tennesseans.

Kim Crusey:

Thank you.

Interviewer:

Next we'll go to Natalie Allison with the Tennessean. Natalie, your line is open.

Natalie Allison:

Good afternoon, Governor.

Governor:

Natalie.

Natalie Allison:

I wanted to ask you about enforcement. When you had initially put out the "Safe at Home" order that was an urging, not a requirement, you changed that requirement because the state found that people weren't following that and so, you all did have to put some teeth to that. What has changed now? why are the dependency pledge guidelines only going to be guidelines and not enforceable requirements for businesses reopening?

Governor:

Thanks Natalie.

Natalie Allison:

Why will people be following it now?

Governor:

Yeah. What we're doing is, we are cracking the door to begin the process of opening our economy and to loosen restrictions. We're, actually in a strategy and we're developing a plan forward that will loosen restrictions, not impose more restrictions. I want to begin by saying that I don't assume, I don't start with the assumption that people are not going to follow, or that businesses are not going to want to take this pledge. We know they're going to want to take this pledge.

Governor:

Businesses are compelled by a desire to create a safe environment for their customers and to create a safe environment for their employees. That's what business people do. That's why our businesses stay in business. We know that they're going to do that. That's why we have brought forth this Tennessee pledge. We really want to work hand in hand with our businesses as opposed to a heavy handed mandate. This is a time for loosening restrictions and allowing people to get back to work in a safe environment. Public safety is the utmost concern here, but we know that we can in fact return people to work and provide for the safety of those workers and customers as well.

Natalie Allison:

In the most recent executive order, there's a line in there that says, "Restaurants are expected to operate in accordance with the Tennessee pledge guidelines, but if a restaurant does not operate in a safe manner, or health outcomes demonstrate a particular business is unable to operate in a safe manner, you may take additional action." Can you explain what you're thinking that might look like?

Governor:

Well, our public health offices all across the state license restaurants for example, and always have. They have the authority to make recommendations and to make changes to a way a restaurant operates all the time, if they believe that restaurant's not operating up to public health standards. Again, this is a time for loosening restrictions and allowing restaurants to get back to work in a safe way. We know they're going to do that. If there's a bad operator out there, we certainly will want to work with that restaurant to bring them back to a place where they're creating a safe environment.

Governor:

Again, we actually think their customers are not going to want to walk into a restaurant that's not safe. They're not going to want to walk into a restaurant that hasn't taken the Tennessee pledge. Frankly, we wouldn't want them to walk into a restaurant and we wouldn't want people to be working there as well. We feel confident that this approach with our business owners and with the folks who work there, is going to be a way for us to move forward and define the path forward, that allows for public safety and economic recovery at the same time.

Interviewer:

Next we'll go to Chris Vanguard with WKRN. Chris, your line is open.

Chris Vanguard:

Thank you. Governor I have another question along those same lines. Has your administration... This comes from our newsroom. Has your administration advised local jurisdictions to make direct contact with businesses about the various phases? There has been confusion and it's a lot. Aside from just going to the website, what do you advise them to do?

Governor:

Yeah. Well, we have provided very clear guidance on our website. We've also communicated that through the public awareness, just like what we're doing right here in this briefing. We have communicated frequently with the local jurisdictions. We've communicated... We have calls with County mayors, we have calls with city mayors. There's been a tremendous effort to coordinate this in a way that people know and those local jurisdictions know what those guidelines are and what the Tennessee pledge is.

Chris Vanguard:

Governor, if I could follow up real quick. What's your word about the hiring freeze? Can you talk about further conversations about state layoffs? Have you been having those conversations?

Governor:

Yeah. We haven't talked about state layoffs. We have talked about being fiscally conservative through this period of time knowing that, the economy has taken a significant hit and budgets have taken a significant hit, the state budget will as well. We have not talked about layoffs, but we have made the step to not have any more new hires except for mission critical hires, associated with attacking COVID-19.

Chris Vanguard:

Thank you governor.

Speaker 1:

Would you like to make a comment about that?

Governor:

Let me let Butch Eley, our Commissioner of FNA, make additional comments to that for you Chris.

Chris Vanguard:

Thank you.

Butch Eley:

We're fighting this battle on two fronts. One, obviously the medical side and the other the economic side, and so we know that the eventual impacts of this virus we'll see come through in the state's revenues. We also know just from our own records with the Department of Revenue that this was in the Tennessee Pledge publication that in March alone, 270 million occurred in loss of revenue from state industries like the hospitality industry. So we know that kind of revenue loss is occurring out there in industry itself. And so from that we know that the end result will certainly come to the States as well and to our state budget as well.

Butch Eley:

And so this was an effort from the governor to kind of get ahead of the curve and go ahead and put in some restraints on the budget so that we're ready as we approach the coming year. In addition to what the hiring freeze did, which also maintains the mission critical hirings to go on, we also froze all equipment purchases so that we could begin the drawback on anything that was unnecessary.

Butch Eley:

We've also asked each of our commissioners to restrain from any other kind of discretionary spending that they may have an opportunity to cut back on. And of course I think you know Chris, that we've maintained the travel ban also in effect during that time, so.

Chris:

Thank you, Butch.

Interviewer:

Next we'll go to Sergio Martinez Beltron with WPLN. Sergio your line is open.

Sergio Martinez:

Thank you. Good afternoon governor, you were talking about those restrictions. We know what that means, you know, people are going to start conducting business in person and there's the expectation that we're going to see more positive cases, so my question is what would it take for you to bring back restrictions on businesses?

Governor:

Yeah, what I really think Sergio is that we can operate businesses in a safe way. We certainly don't make the assumption about what's going to happen to our caseload in the future. We certainly hope that what we see in our state is the efforts around testing and contact tracing and safety requirements or safety guidelines for businesses going forward. We'll continue to mitigate the spread. You know, social distancing has become a part of our way of life and we have to in fact strengthen that way of life going forward as we move out into this next level of opening our economy.

Governor:

So we believe that we can this in a way that that doesn't overload our healthcare system and we have backup strategies in case that happens, but we believe that we can actually prevent that from happening. We will follow the data just as we have from the beginning of this, and we will watch closely what's happening to the case counts, to the hospitalization numbers, to our positivity rate, to our expanded testing results. All of those things will be what we look at as we go forward, which will allow us to make decisions about which businesses open in the future, when, and what adjustments we have to make to those openings as a result of that data.

Sergio Martinez:

[inaudible] forward, as in we already starting to open businesses. We are trying to monitor your state out to open more businesses, but to the question, would you consider adding back restrictions is the answer, no.

Governor:

Oh, I think that you know, depending on what happens, there's nothing off the table. Never has been. We make adjustments to protect the public safety. That's what we've done all along. When there's an imminent public danger, you make decisions and when there is a public safety threat that is changing and that is unexpected for some reason, then we certainly, there's nothing off the table.

Interviewer:

Next we'll go to Shannon Sharp with WTV VC. Shannon, your line is open.

Shannon:

Governor, this may be more directed for Dr. Pearcy, but since the state's numbers are only updated once a week for nursing homes, can you tell us about the cluster of cases that the life care center of Athens failing numbers are telling us, there are at least 50 additional cases there.

Dr. Pearcy:

The only thing I can tell you about that is that they were scheduled for a mass population testing today. I haven't heard otherwise. So I assume that's going forward and it'll be, probably 48 hours, two days before we have those results back. That's the only information I have about that facility.

Shannon:

And just to follow up, are there any plans to up the reporting for a nursing home cases instead of just doing it once a week?

Dr. Pearcy:

Right now that's, that seems to be working well. It takes us some period of time to get those in the computer after they are resulted, actually it doesn't take long to get them in the computer, but to get them in through the lab and to collect from all over this state. And I think we've talked about it before, there is usually a lag in what you hear through family or even staff reports and what we report because not only do we confirm the labs themselves, but then we make contact and confirm that we've got all the right numbers because we want to make sure those numbers are accurate. So because of that process takes a little while and we've been updating those once a week, it's not off the table to do it more frequently. But right now we're just at once a week.

Interviewer:

Next we'll go to Andy Shearer with the Times free press. Andy, your line is open.

Andy:

Thank you. Governor in a statement on Sunday, Chattanooga, mayor Burke said that he was made aware only on Saturday that the governor's most recent order would supersede the city's orders. And he said 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. Specifically what happened there? Why was he not made aware of the fears that, that he thought the situation was A, and it turned out to be Y, a major, major difference there. And surely that comes back to you folks. Does it not. Was it not communicated well or

Governor:

Well as I said to you, we've talked with, and I've talked with every mayor and every municipality, our team has been communicating on a regular basis with those mayors. The County health departments make the decisions about opening and developing their own strategies, that's clear, that County health department drives those decisions. And so I, other than that, other than our efforts to and what I'm know to be a continued communication back and forth between mayors, I can't speak to anything differently. I haven't talked to mayor Burke about it since the weekend.

Andy:

Well, I mean was was it the fact that maybe it wasn't made clear enough to the mayor that the County health department would be calling the shots and not the mayor

Governor:

Sir, the County health department makes the decisions in those six counties. We are making those decisions for 89 counties and we're communicating with the leaders from across the state and have been.

Andy:

All right, thank you.

Governor:

Thank you.

Interviewer:

Next we'll go to Jason Lam, News channel five. Jason, your line is open.

Jason:

Thanks governor for taking my question on the loosening of the restaurant restrictions. You've talked a lot about even today about following the data, changing things at the right place at the right time. You just mentioned the data you're going to be looking at going forward, but beyond the hope and belief that this loosening of restaurant restrictions is going to go well, data or information, have you specifically seen already that this compliance is going to be a different story on a large scale than what you saw with individuals in the scene still moving around before you had the issue that stay at home order?

Governor:

Jason, the restaurants opened today and we will certainly watch and see how Tennessee businesses respond. We're very encouraged by what we've seen even so far today, but these, these businesses have been opened for half a day now. Some of them, they've certainly been allowed to be open. Some have chosen not to open yet because, they don't feel like they're ready. We trust this process. We know that it will be one that works for Tennesseans health, safety and for reopening our economy.

Jason:

And governor, you did mention Puckett's as one example, but what about restaurants in more rural counties where they may not have a lot of cases even right now, and these owners of these restaurants, you know, have been losing money each day this has been going on and they may feel, well, we can maybe let in a little more than half, or something like that.

Governor:

Like I said earlier, I'm not going to make the assumption. I'm not starting with the assumption that Tennessee business owners are going to do the wrong thing. I have trust and faith in the people of Tennessee. They have done exactly what we've asked them to do, which is why we are in this position today. Business owners are eager to get back to work, but they're eager to get back to work in a place that provides safety for their customers, safety for their employees, because they know that is what will have people coming into their restaurants. So I have a great deal of faith and trust in the people of Tennessee, and I have great deal of hope about what the days ahead are going to be like for our State.

Jason:

Thank you, Governor.

Governor:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Interviewer:

That's all the time we have for questions today, Governor.