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June 23, 2020

Governor Bill Lee:

Good morning. Thank you for joining me for what has become a weekly time together. Since we last met, the legislature has passed a historic budget and one that's going to enable us to keep our state on a stable financial footing, even though we're facing one of the greatest economic crisis that we have had as a result of COVID-19. That new budget certainly required that we shelf a lot of very important initiatives that we had hoped to be able to get done this year. Literacy programs, teacher pay raises, criminal justice reform, mental health trust fund investments, all things that are very important and that we expect to reengage in in the near future, but that had to be set aside for now given the economic challenges that we face.

Governor Bill Lee:

I want to thank Lieutenant Governor McNally and Speaker Sexton and the General Assembly for being real strong partners. We had to work together to make very difficult decisions that were tremendous compromises for what many in the legislature wanted to accomplish, but making those compromises for the good of the state and for the wellbeing of our fiscal stability is our responsibility. And so I'm grateful for the leadership out of both chambers and look forward to working together as we continue to navigate the challenges that lie ahead for all of us. I'm also grateful to the General Assembly for allowing us to make history with regard to another issue that will impact Tennessee for generations. Last week, we passed the heartbeat bill, which was one of the strongest pro-life measures in the country. And it's my hope that Tennessee becomes the most pro-family state in the country. And to me, this starts with a commitment to protecting every life, including the life of the unborn. If there's anything worth fighting for, to me, it's the value of the vulnerable, and I'm really proud to be able to make strides in fighting for the most vulnerable, our unborn.

Governor Bill Lee:

As I've said for weeks now, it's our highest priority. It has been our highest priority to pass a balanced budget. And while we were successful, then the legislature concluded with some unfinished business that's leaving a lot of folks across our state and particularly a lot of businesses across our state unsettled. The failure to pass the liability protections related to COVID-19 for businesses and churches and schools and other organizations, that liability protection has to be addressed to keep our economic recovery on track. And I'm evaluating the best way to provide these protections and for our businesses and that certainly includes a serious consideration of a special session.

Governor Bill Lee:

As we all know, a special session is a tool that's reserved for extraordinary circumstances, but protecting Tennessee small business and organizations and churches and schools is certainly an extraordinary circumstance and we'll be looking to consider that decision. Before making it though, it's my hope that productive conversations will happen at the legislative level. And those conversations will resume because they have to in order for there to be a successful session and a quick session. And so, my belief is that that will happen and that's the desire going forward. But until those things happen, then there's not much certainty about timing or specifics with regard to that. But it's certainly something we're willing to consider.

Governor Bill Lee:

While that liability protection provides an enhanced degree of confidence for businesses, we all know that access to capital is another important thing for our companies. And that's why we want to remind 28,000 businesses across the state of the relief available to them, the capital available to them through the Tennessee Business Relief Program, a $200 million stimulus package that we announced a couple of weeks ago. This Tennessee Business Relief Program is designed to provide relief for businesses that had losses, economic losses, resulting from the mandatory closure of those businesses or their significant downturn in their revenues. It's focused on businesses that collect sales tax or paid business tax and were required to stop or modify their operations under the Tennessee executive orders of the pandemic.

Governor Bill Lee:

I bring that up because we want to remind businesses that while there's no need for business owners to apply, it's important that they take the time to make sure that their information is up to date with the Department of Revenue, because Department of Revenue determines eligibility based on the information available in its tax system. And they will notify businesses of any information needed, but we want to remind businesses to make sure that your information is current so that if you qualify for this relief, that you will receive it. And we believe that those distributions and payments will be on track early in July.

Governor Bill Lee:

We've embraced efforts specifically directed to help businesses. We want to remind Tennesseans that consumer confidence is really what makes our economy thrive. And consumer confidence means returning to safely support local businesses and restaurants, retailers, and major sections of the Tennessee economy like tourism. A lot of our state's businesses have adopted the Tennessee Pledge, which we're very grateful for because that provides a level of confidence for consumers. They've also adapted their procedures to curbside pickup or online delivery. And those things, the Tennessee Pledge along with those business practices, allows you and I to safely resume habits that will allow our economy to continue to thrive. And we're seeing those efforts start to pay off. And I just want to highlight some really good news about Tennessee's economy in the midst of some of the challenges that we've had.

Governor Bill Lee:

The Harvard Opportunity Insights Tracker rates states' economic recovery, and Tennessee is ranked number one in the country in recovery for restaurant and hotel spending. And we have the second highest recovery rate in the nation in apparel and general merchandise spending. In May, our out of state travelers to Tennessee increased 145% over April and hotel demand increased by 54% from April to May. These are very encouraging signs for Tennessee's economy. They are also a very strong reminder to Tennesseans that we have to continue to pursue those things which allowed us to get to the place where we are today, which is social distancing, wearing masks, staying home when you're sick.

Governor Bill Lee:

All of those things that are a part of... And to come in businesses, by the way, to continue to operate under the Tennessee Pledge. All of those things are a part of what allows us to operate and move about safely in our economy, and we can continue to have a positive economic news like this for the months ahead. We're going to continue to monitor these points as well as consumer sentiment. And we want to thank the University of Tennessee's Baker Center for partnering with us to provide information. And we want to especially thank every business who has invested time and resources in taking the Tennessee Pledge and keeping Tennesseans safe and providing for consumer confidence, which is what's going to be needed in the weeks ahead.

Governor Bill Lee:

I've spoken for several weeks about how I want to spend time, based on the issues in our country today, how I want to spend time with faith leaders, with minority business leaders, with law enforcement, with folks who can inform me, particularly with regard to experiences that I have not had so that we can move forward as a state in the issues that challenge us and that have been elevated appropriately so in our state. And during a recent trip to Memphis on Friday, I was very encouraged to speak with black faith leaders, pastors of multiple churches in that city who were actually engaged in a COVID-19 testing blitz across the city and as a part of Juneteenth celebration. I was there on Friday, and I want to thank those faith leaders in serving their communities through this COVID-19 push, but I also want to thank them for the time they spent with me so that we could talk about the issues that are so important to every Tennessean.

Governor Bill Lee:

I also spent... I had a meeting with Memphis Police Chief, Rallings, and Shelby County Sheriff, Bonner, to talk just about the importance of how it is that law enforcement can take steps to ensure that our Tennessee force is disciplined in the way that it serves our communities. Those are very productive conversations. There'll be many more of those. I want to commend Sheriff Bonner and law enforcement for working quickly already to implement policies, duty to intervene policies that will ensure accountability and allow officers provide them empowerment to speak up. I want to continue to work with law enforcement and I will be sharing more about the work that we are actually doing jointly with law enforcement about safer policies. We'll be announcing some of those in the coming days.

Governor Bill Lee:

In the last month, I've also visited with multiple black business owners, with minority business owners, specifically restaurant owners, both here in Nashville and in Memphis to gain really further insight into the challenges that minority business owners face and the opportunities that we have to create an environment that allows them to be more successful and to engage and to be a more important engagement in our economy. So I'm encouraged. I'm encouraged not only by our conversations, but it's also been a lot of fun. If I keep this up, there'll be a lot of good food to be had throughout the summer, but more importantly, a good policy that I think will be a result of the efforts.

Governor Bill Lee:

Before we go to the questions, Dr. Chris is going to come up to give a brief health update, but we had our largest single day of COVID-19 cases in this past week, and we are closely watching those numbers. Fortunately, we had some much better days following that spike today, but what we're watching for are trends. And we're specifically looking at healthcare capacity, hospitalization data, death rates per capita. Those are the things that are the real manifestations of this COVID-19 pandemic that we are most closely following and we will continue to do so.

Governor Bill Lee:

So Dr. Piercey, would you come up and make comments?

Dr. Piercey:

Thank you, Governor. Good morning. As the governor mentioned, we don't have today's numbers yet, but yesterday's numbers were 451 new cases in the context of almost 14,500 test. As he mentioned, it is a modest but expected increase as people start moving about. And we do see an increase in the average number of daily new cases. Over the last 14 days, our average daily new case count is 615 compared to the prior 14 days, which was 453. We're starting to see these develop in hotspots, and just a couple of hours ago in our Every Morning Unified Command Group meeting with the governor, we started discussions on developing what we're calling a Hotspot Plan. You'll probably remember that we did that in Hamilton County, and Severe County in the last couple of weeks when we saw increases there, obviously that work continues. Most recently, we've seen increases in Wilson and Hamblen counties, and we'll start developing those plans for those spots.

Dr. Piercey:

The good news is that our hospitalizations and deaths have remained stable in the context of a modest increase of case counts. Currently, COVID patients represent 4.9% of all hospitalized patients statewide. That varies by different geography, but statewide it's still less than 5%. Our hospital capacity therefore remains quite stable. As of this morning, 24% of our inpatient beds were available, 25% of our ICU beds were available, and 75% of our ventilators were available.

Dr. Piercey:

Why is it that hospitalizations are staple in the context of increasing case numbers? We believe that mostly that is due to a lower age range, but we do continue to watch that. Hospitals continue to remain busy with their typical things. As they resume elective procedures, that increases their typical occupancy rates. We have normal summertime trauma and infections that we normally see in hospitals in the summertime. And then something that has been concerning nationally, and we've seen it here as well, during this entire pandemic, people put off routine medical procedures, and even care, for things that they should have sought care for, like heart attacks, and strokes, and even cancer diagnoses. So as people are becoming more comfortable, they are starting to seek more appropriate care. So the bottom line message there is hospitals have plenty of capacity, and the vast majority of hospital beds that are occupied are with typical conditions.

Dr. Piercey:

Finally, we noticed some interesting information yesterday that I want to share with you. So compared to earlier in the pandemic, when most people got infected from people that they knew, primarily household contacts or parts of clusters, if that happened in their workplace, or other particular places. Now exactly 50% of cases are from an unknown source. I'll repeat that again. Half of all infections that people don't know where they got infected. Now that's not surprising because as people are moving about in the community, they come in contact with people that are sick, that they're unaware of. But this unknown source tells us that we have more community spread. So that reemphasizes the point that when you are moving about, and we want you to move about, and we want you to feel comfortable doing that, but we want you to do it safely. As I tell you every time, wash your hands, wear your face covering. And avoid crowds when you can, but when you have to, keep your distance and make sure you're doing it safely. Thank you.

Governor Bill Lee:

Thank you, Dr. Piercey. We will be happy to take questions. I want you to know on deck, we've got Major General Holmes from military. Commissioner Gerregano's here, Commissioner Eley from the Economic Recovery Group. Well, Commissioner Eley of F&A. Commissioner Ezell from Economic Recovery Group. So we have a whole host of folks that we can bring up and answer questions if need be, but happy to answer your questions.

Speaker 1:

Governor, way back on the campaign trail, during a GOP debate, you had said that taking a knee in front of the flag was absolute disrespect to the flag, the anthem, and veterans.

Governor Bill Lee:

Yeah.

Speaker 1:

I was wondering, in the context of what's happening in the country right now, have you gotten to reconsider that stance? Or evolve on that?

Governor Bill Lee:

Yeah. In the context of what's happening in the country right now, I think that the most productive thing we can do is not so much talk about protest tactics, but talk about the value of elevating the conversation around much needed issues like racial reconciliation. And so that's what I'll be focused on. I think one of the things I want to do is work really hard to try and focus on efforts that are going to be productive, and bring people together, and find solutions. And so protests are a good thing. And First Amendment rights are a good thing. Arguing about protest tactics are not, in my view, productive. Yeah.

Speaker 2:

[inaudible] Thank you, governor. Nice to see you. I have two questions. First one, you were talking about the COVID liability protections and how you're considering a special session. I know we're seeing the speakers of both chambers having a back and forth like we haven't seen before. Could you do these protections via an executive order? Is that something that you're also considering due to [inaudible]?

Governor Bill Lee:

You know, I referenced that in my comments. We're exploring all the options for that. The best way to do it is through legislation. There may be other options, and we are exploring that, but the best way to do it is through legislation. That's what I hope for.

Speaker 3:

And Governor, you talked about how you talked to black faith leaders in Memphis last week. What did you learn from having a conversation with them that maybe you didn't know before?

Governor Bill Lee:

Yeah, I think every time you have a conversation with another individual who has a unique perspective, you learn things that you didn't know before. Every time I have a conversation with somebody, particularly someone who has a life experience really different than mine, then I learned something that I didn't know before. And that's part of the value of that.

Speaker 3:

[crosstalk] Something specific about ... Something that you learned?

Governor Bill Lee:

Oh, well, I think if you ask someone about their experience growing up, what was their experience like growing up? And they tell you, and you see, you have a story about a particular experience they had with racism. Then you're given a clearer understanding of what racism looks like. So that's an example.

Speaker 4:

Andy.

Andy:

Governor, well, I guess I've got two questions. One is, so at this point, what actions are you taking [inaudible] in order to get them to agree to come back for a special session and deal with the liability lawsuit? And would that also include the telemedicine?

Governor Bill Lee:

I think both chambers of the House recognize that this is a really important issue. They both were working to accomplish the goal of having liability protection. And so what I'm doing is allowing for time for those conversations to have. Those leaders know that this is an important issue. So they'll be developing that as well.

Andy:

And we'll need to move on to something else. I mean, you are talking about how things are working. You have these climbing rates, The New York Times, just this week, ranked Chattanooga as number two for growth rate for COVID-19 deaths. I mean, what you and the commissioner are talking about, I mean it sounds, to some people, I think, like happy talk. When you've got those sort of trends.

Governor Bill Lee:

I think I said in my comments that we just had the highest day of cases that we've ever had since the pandemic began. There's a genuine understanding that COVID-19 is a serious public health crisis for our state and we take it seriously every single day. There's nothing happy about five people dying a day in our state and we take that very seriously as well. We are encouraged that we have one of the lowest death rates per capita in the country, but every single death is a very serious issue for me and it requires a continued effort. Chattanooga has had a spike in cases, and we have had conversations with the mayor's offices, both county and city, we've been to Chattanooga, we've developed a strategy. I personally talked with the county mayor day before yesterday to talk about our efforts and our work with that county so I think we take very seriously the challenges that we're facing with this pandemic and we'll continue to do so going forward.

Andy:

So what is the strategy for Chattanooga now?

Governor Bill Lee:

It's to target those populations. We've made a specific target toward the Hispanic population, because we've seen particularly in the Hispanic community there a rise in cases. We're working with the health department there to expand testing and to provide innovative and alternative ways to get more folks to test. We're doing public service announcements in Spanish on Hispanic radio stations particularly because of the Hispanic outbreak that we've had there. There are a lot of efforts that we're making. Dr. Piercey referenced the hotspot efforts that we're implementing in places and Chattanooga is one of those places.

Speaker 5:

Health experts say Tennessee should have almost 2000 contact tracers, we currently have 700. What's the state doing with both that effort of contact tracers?

Governor Bill Lee:

You want to specifically address that? We are addressing that. So I'll let you, Dr. Piercey, talk about the numbers.

Dr. Piercey:

Yes, you're correct. Contact tracing is something that we are keenly focused on. We do currently have about 700 and one of the metrics that we're watching very closely is how many contacts per case and naturally you would understand that the more you move about, the more contacts you're going to have. When this first began, each case had maybe two to three contacts and in some areas that's approaching eight or even higher now. So there is a true increase in demand for contact tracing.

Dr. Piercey:

However, I'll remind you that we only trace active cases, not the old ones. So after they roll off and recover, they're no longer traced. And then those in institutions, prisons, nursing homes, things where there are congregate care settings, they have their own imbedded contact tracers assigned to them. So if you look just at the case count number, it may cause you to overestimate it, but I don't want to minimize the need for it.

Dr. Piercey:

As we are moving further into the summer, we have got contracts with two and working on a third agency to bring on more contact tracers. A lot of it is just phone calls and that can be done decentralized .so we're working on those efforts, but right now we're able to keep up, but it is something that's on our radar. Thank you.

Speaker 6:

Governor, can you talk about the need to be using data [inaudible] increase in deaths by 17 per cent, 30 per cent increase in hospitalizations. The infection rate is now six times what it was [inaudible]. With all of this, how do you justify moving forward and not going back [inaudible].

Governor Bill Lee:

Because I think the most important piece of data... the importance of data changes as the pandemic moves, so when we didn't know what was coming, there was data that was more important for decision making than now that we're in the middle of it. The most important data is death rate, the second most important data is the hospitalization numbers and our healthcare capacity. To me, those are the most important data. Certainly case count matters, the numbers of contact tracers, what age folks are getting this, the duration. There's a lot of data and none of it is not important, but some of them are the most important in my view. The number of Tennesseans that we lose to this virus and the number of Tennesseans that are hospitalized and the capacity that we have to meet those hospitalizations.

Speaker 7:

And is there a certain point that it would take you to... Is there a certain death rate or a hospitalization rate that you would say [inaudible].

Governor Bill Lee:

Well, I've always said that nothing's off the table, but I actually think there are a lot of levers that would happen with regard to hospitalization. For example, long before you started other measures. And we're in a really different place in this pandemic than we were four months ago. People know and have personal responsibility for whether or not they go to a bar or whether or not they go to an event or whether or not they wear a mask or whether or not they wash their hands. There's personal responsibility. And now we all know as a society what causes this, how it's spread and how we can protect ourselves from it so that changes the responsibilities that government has to provide safeguards. But we still have very important numbers. That's the reason we're protecting our nursing homes because the highest death rate occurs in the elderly and particularly those in long term care facilities. We change our strategies based on what we learn about it and we look to the data that's most important and that's what we're tracking.

Speaker 7:

And just to clarify, if the shelter in place order and business restrictions aren't needed right now, why were they needed a couple months ago?

Governor Bill Lee:

Well, there was a lot that we didn't know about this virus a couple of months ago. There were models that showed 700,000 people in Tennessee dying as a result of COVID in the first six months. There were models that showed two million people in the United States dying of COVID. There was a lot unknown about what was going to happen, and we know a lot more today than we knew before so the decision making process is different. It's based a lot more on data from the ground instead of projections about what might happen.

Speaker 8:

[inaudible] Governor, last week you talked about the funding of police and I think the phrase you used was [inaudible]. So I was wondering if you could explain specifically what your personal understanding of the term [inaudible] is?

Governor Bill Lee:

Taking funding away from police departments with the idea that we would be better off without law enforcement.

Speaker 8:

And have you had any conversations or are you engaged in conversations with black leaders about that concept of what they would want to do with that money?

Governor Bill Lee:

Yeah. I've had conversations with black leaders, none of which to date have advocated with me for defunding of the police.

Speaker 9:

Okay. To follow on that, last week you said that you would only be willing to engage in productive conversation. And then what the demonstrators outside the [inaudible] building were calling for was not a productive conversation. Now, is there any circumstance, Governor, in which you would consider granting them an audience if, for instance, they would alter the message they would want to share with you.

Governor Bill Lee:

You know, there've been dozens of protests and tens of thousands of people across this state, who've engaged in a very important process of speaking out about injustices and issues that are very important to them. And I value those voices and hear them and listen to them. And we know what the different asks are, but there are, there have been dozens of, and tens of thousands of protestors, many of who would like to meet with the governor to tell them personally what they would like.

Governor Bill Lee:

What's most productive to me is meeting with folks who actually can listen to these voices of protesters and then engage in policy that will bring around substantive change and solutions. We know there are a lot of requests and a lot of, a lot of issues being brought forth. For me, the heart of the matter is racial reconciliation. And it is very much connected to, because of the George Floyd killing it's connected to the way law enforcement engages with the community. Those two things are of utmost importance to me. And those are the heart of the matter. And those are the conversations that I want to engage in to find solutions going forward.

Speaker 10:

[inaudible].

Governor Bill Lee:

There, there have been pieces of advice. When I talked with law enforcement, we talked specifically about some initial reforms that would be helpful statewide. So I've had specific conversations about actual reform and we're working with law enforcement officials too. And we'll be saying more about that in the next week or so, in the next week or two.

Speaker 11:

What about African Americans?

Governor Bill Lee:

Well, actually some of those law enforcement... The sheriff of Memphis... I mean the chief of Memphis and the sheriff of Shelby County are both African-Americans. African American pastors, business owners, each have different. A business owner talks about access to capital and about barriers with banking. And those are important issues that we've discussed. African American pastors talk to me about the role that the church has to play. And one of my meetings was with white pastor and a black pastor to talk about how important it is for the church to engage in this issue. Because it, as I've said before, it's a human being issue. It's a spiritual issue. It's an issue for me based on the foundation that every human being is created by God, in his image and therefore the church and its understanding of that principle, that unique understanding of that principle and the trust level the church has. Both the white church and the black church and those churches that are biracial, they have a huge role to play. And so we've talked a lot about the role of the church in the heart of the matter of racial reconciliation.

Speaker 12:

[inaudible] What do you expect to make a decision about the [inaudible]

Governor Bill Lee:

That'll be in some part up to the conversations between legislators and the leaders. They're getting to a place where we feel confident that that special session will, will result in action and can be done quickly in a short period of time. Not... Short period of time as to when it will be called that short period short duration to the session itself.

Speaker 4:

Thank you very much.

Governor Bill Lee:

Thank you all very much for participating. I think these are really helpful and my desire is to continue to communicate and to be a place... For this, to be a place where we can have meaningful dialogue to communicate to the people what we're trying to do to serve every Tennessean. So, thanks for the role that you play. The press in particular in that, and thank you, Tennesseans for joining in on this press briefing.