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April 28, 2020

Thank you for joining us for our Tuesday COVID-19 briefing as we discussed our efforts to fight COVID-19 and gradually open the door on our state’s economy in a safe, methodical, data-backed way. 

Social distancing works and we remind every Tennessean that continuing social distancing practices and good hygiene, like frequent hand-washing, will ensure we can stay on track with safe re-open plans. 

In 89 of our counties, we see businesses taking the Tennessee Pledge and opening at limited capacity: restaurants are beginning to open, retail outfits are set to open tomorrow and today we are announcing that gyms will be allowed to re-open on Friday. 

We will say more about this guidance, shortly and I’ve invited Commissioner Ezell of our Economic Recovery Group to share more about this process. 

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 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. Every business in Tennessee has a responsibility to create safe working conditions. We have universal re-open guidelines available at Tennessee Pledge Dot Com and we ask every Tennessean to engage with these resources. 

We will continue to recognize the businesses that are doing right by their employees and customers and living out the Tennessee Pledge. Today I want to recognize Champy’s Fried Chicken in Chattanooga for their efforts to immediately implement procedures to open their doors safely. I also want to recognize Picasso Bistro & Pizzeria in Jackson for taking safe re-open precautions for dine-in services. 

Soon, businesses across the state will be able to display a poster in their window if they are abiding by the guidelines outlined in the Tennessee Pledge. 

In addition to guidance, I will share more about the stimulus funds our state has received and our work to cover uninsured Tennesseans facing COVID-19

Case Count

  • 10,052 confirmed cases (1.35% day over day increase)
  • 188 Tennesseans lost
  • 4,921 Tennesseans recovered

Today we have released guidance for gyms in Tennessee to begin to safely operate. We feel it is imperative for the mental and physical health of Tennesseans to have access to fitness environments. 

Under the Tennessee Pledge guidelines gyms in 89 of our Tennessee counties will reduce capacity to 50% and close communal spaces like athletic courts, locker rooms, swimming pools and self-service areas like juice bars and coffee stations. Fitness classes will also reduce by 50%, utilize social distancing and remove shared equipment. 

These are a few examples from our full guidance that can be found at Tennessee Pledge dot com. It includes information for businesses, employees and customers. 

Today I’d also like to provide an update about stimulus funding in Tennessee. 

We are fortunate for the leadership by our White House and our federal delegation for the multiple forms of relief provided for in the CARES Act and other legislation.

They’ve set aside significant funding that goes direct to hospitals and businesses for economic relief. That funding that will not require additional state action or appropriation to become effective, but we will work closely with them to make sure Tennessee entities are accessing those funds.

The funding Tennessee is receiving can be divided into two categories: The Coronavirus Relief Fund, which is 2.3B, and our most flexible source of funds. 

The second source of funding includes several increases to the federal share of existing programs, which will be restricted to those uses.

What all the funding has in common is that it has to be used on new spending this year. So we will be working to structure this funding in a way that does not create new, long-term obligations that the state budget cannot afford next year.

With over $2 billion in one-time spending, we have to align to the priorities we’ve set out:

First is Public Health: Ensuring we have a medical and public health response that gets the treatment to those who need it, testing to those who want it, and robust contact tracing for those who may have been infected. These are the types of efforts that fall within our Unified-Command Group. 

HHS has provided additional details on the allocation and distribution of CARES Act funding to health care providers.

Included in this latest information was confirmation that a portion of the funds will be utilized to address the costs for COVID-19 treatment for the uninsured.

Health care providers treating the uninsured may file claims with the federal government and be reimbursed for treatment provided on or after February 4.

We are pleased by this recent action at the federal level and remain committed to treatment and care for any uninsured Tennessean who falls victim to COVID-19.

To that end, we remain committed to utilizing $30 million in state funding through our Division of TennCare to supplement the federal dollars if needed, and we will revisit our waiver request with CMS to address this issue if we find the federal dollars are not sufficient.

Again, during this COVID-19 emergency, we need all Tennesseans to seek appropriate medical testing and treatment to better ensure their own safety but also the safety of their families, neighbors, and the entire state. This available funding for COVID-19 treatment will certainly help us meet this objective. Stephen Smith, the Director of TennCare is here to answer further questions about this.

Stimulus funds can also be used to support a system that rapidly responds to the concerns or needs of our citizens so that this activity can continue safely. For example, funds can be spent on continued PPE purchases, and we can use these funds to support public access to those types of resources. 

Finally, we have to make sure our taxpayer dollars are used wisely. This crisis has placed new demands on our state and local governments. To the degree that new spending is required by the government to support the response, we’ll need to address that burden so that we can remain fiscally stable in the years to come. 

For instance, our prisons, schools, and other public agencies, will all have to adapt to a way of doing business that incorporates our safety guidelines. That will have a cost. To the degree that we can use these federal funds to provide for these adaptations, the more we can reduce the strain on our state and local budgets.

To ensure proper stewardship that serves Tennesseans well, we are working with the bi-partisan Stimulus Accountability Group. 

We thank Lt. Gov McNally, Speaker Sexton, Sen. Watson, Sen. Akbari, Rep. Marsh, Rep. Love, and Comptroller Wilson for their service in these efforts.

Additionally, all Coronavirus Relief Fund expenditures are subject to oversight by the US Treasury Inspector General.

Governor Bill Lee:

We will open up for questions. Dr. Piercey of course is here. Members of our Unified Command team, Department of Military. Steven Smith with our Department of TennCare is here. So we will open up the lines for questions.

Interviewer:

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

Kim:

Hi, Governor. So as more of the state prepares to reopen, I was wondering what your guidance or how you are handling the state's more touristy areas and Gatlinburg comes to mind, other high tourist attraction areas. Are you encouraging people to visit these places once in the guidance or do you think the public should be walking to this area even while trying to manage social distancing?

Governor Bill Lee:

I'm going to let Commissioner Zelle speak to that but broadly, what I'm going to say is no matter where you are in Tennessee, Tennesseans have got to stay committed to social distancing. Whatever activity Tennesseans are engaged in, have to stay committed to this concept of social distancing. So the limited number of businesses that are opening in a very limited way, they are committed to that. And the people that engage with those businesses should be as well. So Mark you want to make additional comments about tourism areas? Most of those facilities are-

Commissioner Zelle:

Well, what the Governor said is correct. Those restaurants in Gatlinburg have began opening this week and retail stores are going to be opening tomorrow. The leaders of Gatlinburg are interested in how they can be building plans for all their businesses to be opening. But as we have a careful phased approach, we're first doing the restaurants well and then we'll do retail well. And the Gatlinburg leaders and many others across this state are continuing to work on their plans to how to be ready to practice those social distancing, those safe measures of the Tennessee pledge when it's appropriate for those businesses to open.

Kim:

So that's guidance for people inside Tennessee. Do you have anything or what do you say to those people who might be traveling white one travel from outside the state to Tennessee?

Governor Bill Lee:

Yeah. Well, what I would say is that in the same way that for the past six, seven, eight weeks, we have asked folks to be committed to not gathering in groups, so we continue to do that. That continues to be in our guidance to not find themselves in social settings where groups of people come together. To now, we're at where I'm asking people to wear a mask in public areas where they're coming in contact with other people. All of the ways that folks know are complimentary or are a part of social distancing practices that's what I'd say to anyone that's out in any place across our state.

Kim:

Thank you, Governor.

 

Governor Bill Lee:

Thank you.

Interviewer:

Next we'll go to Natalie Alison with the Tennessee and Natalie, your line is open.

Natalie:

Hey Governor. You've got to do the mass demonstration next time.

 

Governor Bill Lee:

No, no, no, that's not... No, you don't want me to do that Natalie.

Natalie:

Directors [inaudible] great though-

 

Governor Bill Lee:

He's much better model than I am.

Natalie:

My question is, when your executive orders on the state hall measures expire tomorrow night, it appears there effectively won't be any restrictions on holding social gatherings, sporting events, other large gatherings around the state and for that matter, no restrictions on the other types of businesses you all haven't mentioned yet like salons reopening. Is that accurate?

Governor Bill Lee:

Yeah, we actually will be reissuing an executive order to replace the one that is in place now and that'll address all of the issues that you're talking about regarding gatherings, which venues are not allowed to open, the continuation of the closure of close contact businesses. So that executive order will replace... There will be an executive order that replaces the one that is expiring and it'll give new guidance that'll include the opening and the safe reopening of the business specified and continue the closure of those that are not yet allowed.

Natalie:

So to clarify, you said you won't extend the stay at home order. So you're going to put out a new speaking to which businesses can't reopen and which types of venues can't hold gatherings?

Governor Bill Lee:

Yeah, it will actually speak to a wide array of social distancing guidelines as well.

Natalie:

Okay, and then another question, will you step in to overrule places like Davidson County and Shelby County, if they decide to wait a while longer before reopening businesses?

Governor Bill Lee:

I've said and continue to and I talked to one of those municipal mayors this morning, continue conversations with those mayors, with those health departments. As you know, the health departments actually are the ones that make the decisions for those six counties that don't fall under the 89 counties that have state health departments. We're working with those... Our economic recovery group is working with their groups to create plans that are complimentary and we expect that, that's going to happen. We know it is already happening and we expect that's going to happen over the next few weeks.

Natalie:

What happens if weeks go by and Nashville is still not there yet or in Memphis [inaudible] still don't feel like they can move forward with that. What's your role going to be?

Governor Bill Lee:

That's hypothetical and it's a situation that I don't think it's going to happen. We certainly will address circumstances as they come up, but I'll say right now the working together of the leaders across this state has been unique from what I can tell about what's happening in a lot of states. I've been very encouraged with the leaders of those six counties and how we've worked together. I don't anticipate any problem that way.

Natalie:

Thank you.

Interviewer:

Next, we'll go to Sam Stockard with the Daily Memphian. Sam, your line is open.

Sam:

Yes, yeah. Governor, can you hear me?

Governor Bill Lee:

Yes, sir.

Sam:

Yes. I was wondering, considering that the legislative staff is being called back in next Monday to work, yet your administrative staff is not being called back until May 26th. I mean, what is the line of thinking there? Why are you waiting so long to bring your staff back if you feel it's safe for others to go back to work at not essential places and other offices?

Governor Bill Lee:

Sam, we're encouraging anyone who feels like they can get the work done with a stay at home strategy to do just that. Those businesses are encouraged to continue stay at home practices. That's why the state's going to continue for the bulk of its employees that the ones that are currently working at home to be at home. The legislature will make their own decisions about which employees it deems necessary to be in certain working circumstances. That's how all businesses and all entities will operate. For those that they believe are necessary to be onsite to work, then we encourage them to do that in a way that practices, social distancing and provides for the safe workplace and that's what we'll be doing at this stage as well.

Interviewer:

Next we'll go to Jason Reynolds with the Murfreesboro Posts. Jason, your line is open.

Jason:

Hello. This first question is for Dr. Piercey and then... Well actually both are. Recent reports said that the state is recruiting with contact tracers from local health departments in academia. Will the tracing be done as a partnership between the state and the local health departments and will the local media have a chance to talk to the local tracers to see how the process works?

Dr. Piercey:

So, I had a little trouble hearing the first part of your question, but I think you're asking about the process for contact tracing in our local health departments and-

Jason:

Yes, I understand that they're going to be recruited from local health department, state department, academia. And so will this be a partnership between the state department and the local health departments?

Dr. Piercey:

Sure. So we employ... The state Department of Health employees contact tracers, what we call disease intervention specialists actually on a full time basis because we track communicable disease, whether it's foodborne illness or measles or other types of diseases. That's ongoing work all of the time. So some of that staff is already in local health departments. As we've talked about before, we have significantly ramped up our workforce, not only within existing employees by repurposing their duties but also, I think it was last week, we talked about bringing on another couple of hundred state employees who volunteered to be temporary reassigned to these duties. We actually are already in the planning phases of another cohort of contact tracers to bring them on. As our case load grows, we know that not only testing but also contact tracing are vitally important to making sure we keep this under control as we start to reopen.

Dr. Piercey:

So to answer your question, absolutely. We'll be working with the State Health Department, as well as all of our local County Health Departments, in addition to our Metro Health Departments, in providing contact tracing support. I think they do really good work, and they're kind of cool jobs, and so I would encourage you to reach out to your contact tracers locally and get to know more about what they do.

Jason:

So the local health department will be able to speak to the press if we asked to see the tracers?

Dr. Piercey:

We always funnel all press inquiries through our Public Information Officer, but there's no reason in the world not to be able to tell you what a contact tracer does. We're really proud of their work.

Jason:

Oh, excellent. Okay, and then is the state doing anything with growing cases at nursing homes across the state? Is the State Department doing anything extra in helping protect the staff, to make sure that they stay well so the residents stay well? Such as extra screenings and so forth?

Dr. Piercey:

Sure. So you bring up a great point, which is nursing home and long-term care facilities having an extraordinarily vulnerable population. And it's one that Unified Command and the governor and all of us talk about literally every single day. It's something that we are working day and night to increase our response to.

Dr. Piercey:

And in the next day or two, you will hear plans of how we intend to expand our testing and our monitoring across all long-term care facilities. Because as we learn more about the science of this disease, it's really interesting that we found a lot of elderly folks can be positive and have a very long, what we call pre-symptomatic period. They can test positive and look well for a long time. And so the sooner we recognize those cases and we isolate and cohort those appropriately and take extra precautions, the better the outcomes will be. And that's certainly our top priority.

Jason:

Thank you.

Interviewer:

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

Sergio Martinez-Beltran:

Thank you, Governor, and good afternoon. Governor, I wanted to ask you. We know that the Senate Democrats sent you a letter, and the same letter was sent to Secretary Hargett, asking you to expand absentee ballot, increase the number of locations and days for voting, and require voting precinct sites to be approved by the County Health Departments.

Sergio Martinez-Beltran:

I was wondering if this is something you're considering at this point, since it might be a way to protect Tennesseans from contracting any of the virus?

Governor Bill Lee:

Yeah, I've spoken with Secretary Hargett, who is reviewing all issues around voting. It's not been our focus in the Governor's Office right now, because we're trying to attack the current efforts. And we know those elections are some time away, but Secretary Hargett's working on that, along with the Attorney General, and we'll be getting his recommendations and getting his input in the weeks ahead.

Sergio Martinez-Beltran:

Is this something your administration would support? Something like extending absentee ballot? I know that Secretary Hargett is the one working with it, but is this something that your administration would support?

Governor Bill Lee:

Well, I'd have to look at the proposals and consider all the issues that are out there. I haven't spent much time on that right now, Sergio. I've allowed Secretary Hargett, as he has the responsibility for the oversight of elections, to sort of gather information and then to give us a report at some point in the future. Thank you.

Interviewer:

Next, we'll go to Alex Apple with Fox 17. Alex, your line is open.

Alex Apple:

Hey, Governor. Appreciate your continued time for all of this. The federal government has already given the state ... I think it was over 900 million, and a lot of that is going to reimbursement of hospitals for caring for people that don't have insurance.

Alex Apple:

But the fact that so many people lost their employer insurance means that if they're not re-hired right away, this could be something that needs money and funding for some time. Hopefully, it never happens, but like the SBA loans, that money can sometimes run out. There's not endless amounts. What can the state do in that scenario? Have you had any conversations about needing to set up Plan Bs for that? Or have you received an assurance from the federal government that that continued funding for our hospitals will be there?

Governor Bill Lee:

Well, there's a significant funding that goes directly to hospitals through the CARES Act. There's also committed funding to those who lose insurance, to make sure that they are covered for COVID-19 treatment expenses, as well, and those funds are significant. We just received a portion and we're getting continued guidance along the way, but the things that you're concerned about have, in fact, been addressed through this CARES Act funding.

Governor Bill Lee:

And there's an additional consideration in Congress right now for an additional stimulus bill. There's very little known about that next wave of funding: if it comes, what it will be, how it will be directed, what it will be used for. So we'll have to wait and see about that, but I think the federal government has recognized where the difficulties are in our healthcare system and the need for funding directly to healthcare providers. That's why they did that in the first round of funding, and I suspect they may do it in the second round, as well.

Alex Apple:

One quick follow-up for you, Governor. The Legislature passed a budget before they all left and went back to their home towns. Do you know how accurate that budget has been, for lack of a better term? Is there an estimate of how much money you might need to make up if it's 100, 200 short? Because they were really just estimating the economic impact that the pandemic would have on our economy.

Governor Bill Lee:

Yeah, and I would say this, too, Alex: We're still just estimating that. As you know, until actual revenue data comes in for all of April ... That report comes out mid-May, and then the real impacts that would come in May, that would be more substantive, even, than April. When that becomes data and not just projections, then we're going to have a whole lot more understanding around what impact that specifically is going to have to the budget.

Governor Bill Lee:

We clearly know this has been a significant and catastrophic economic downturn. It will have a significant impact on our state's budget. We'll have to make the kinds of decisions that are necessary to making that situation, but it's a little too early to tell what those will be, because we don't have any real data yet to tell us what the numbers might look like.

Alex Apple:

Thank you, Governor.

Interviewer:

Next, we'll go to David Floyd with the Johnson City Press. David, your line is open.

David Floyd:

Hey, Governor. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about whether or not employees who work for businesses that are eligible to reopen but have not reopened out of health concerns ... Whether or not those employees would still have access to state and federal unemployment benefits that have been enhanced through the CARES Act.

Governor Bill Lee:

If that business has not opened and was closed as a result of this pandemic, then those employees have access to unemployment insurance through the CARES Act.

David Floyd:

Got you. And what about employees that work for businesses that have reopened but have opted not to return, out of health concerns or if they're immunocompromised or are at risk of more severe symptoms?

Governor Bill Lee:

I'm going to let our Commissioner for Labor and Workforce address that question specifically around ... There are guidelines for how an employee can receive unemployment insurance and the conditions under which they can receive that. Dr. McCord?

Dr. McCord:

Sure. Thank you for the question. In understanding your question, let me frame it first this way. There are several reasons and several instances that qualify you for what you call PUA, Pandemic Unemployment Assistance. One of those reasons is not that there's some sort of worry about going back to employment. If you're offered a job and if your employer opens back up, then you stand the chance of losing those benefits if you don't have a clear reason not to go back.

Dr. McCord:

Now, in the situation you suggested, that somebody is immunocompromised, those situations may be a little different, and that's just a case-by-case basis.

David Floyd:

So if it's simply them being worried about contracting the illness if they go back to work, that would be a situation where they would not be eligible to continue to receive unemployment benefits.

Dr. McCord:

That's correct.

David Floyd:

Thank you.

Interviewer:

That's all the time we have.