Tennessee works to combat coronavirus health threats, protect businesses

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Surviving the impact of the coronavirus emergency is going to take team effort from individual Tennesseans, the state and federal governments, and businesses, according to Tennessee Governor Bill Lee.

Lee spoke on March 26 with members of the Tennessee Press Association about the state’s response to the spread of COVID-19, the disease the virus causes. He emphasized the seriousness of this threat.

“As this virus spreads across our state, and it’s in the majority of our counties now, we know that it’s not going to be limited to our population centers,” Lee said. “It’s going to likely end up in every corner of the state. And the degree to which it ends up there will be the degree to which Tennesseans take this seriously, heed the advice and follow the guidance of staying apart.”

He has set up a COVID-19 Unified Command within the governor’s office. The purpose is to unify efforts of the Department of Health, Tennessee Emergency Management Agency and Department of the Military as they strategize on limiting the spread of the virus, providing for healthcare capacity, attaining and distributing personal protective equipment, and ramping up testing capacity. The plans cover both urban and rural communities in Tennessee.

Stuart McWhorter, previously the commissioner of the Department of Finance & Administration, is heading up the Unified Command. Retired Brigadier General Scott Brower is the command’s deputy director.

Testing is critical, Lee said, and the state hasn’t yet had the capacity for everyone in Tennessee to be tested.

“But I will say that I’m very encouraged with the ramped-up efforts of our state to expand testing. We are opening up new test centers, new laboratory capacity.”

Last week, Lee stood with 250 of the state’s National Guardsmen (including 150 who are medical personnel) as they were about to be deployed to remote access centers across the state to expand testing efforts. At the state’s supply distribution center, personal protective equipment is being gathered for distribution.

He said 81% of the personal protective equipment shipped out from the National Guard has gone to rural counties.

The recently approved state budget included $200 million in grants for individual counties and municipalities. The funds will be distributed according to an area’s population.

He also alluded to the $2 trillion coronavirus relief bill that President Donald signed last Friday.

“I don’t know how quickly the money will actually flow, but we believe we will have quick guidance, which will allow us to develop a strategy rapidly for how we will distribute this funding.”

For the business relief element of that strategy, Lee is getting advice from a recently assembled industry advisory council, mostly composed of small business representatives.

He also talked about how the coronavirus shutdowns have hurt families’ finances and how the state wants to help.

“We have unemployment claims being filed in the state of Tennessee at a record pace. Never before have we seen the daily filings for unemployment – every day sets a new record. Every week we’ll set a new record. We are in an incredible rapid downturn in our economy that will profoundly financially and economically affect Tennesseans from one end of the state to the other. And we are doing everything we can as a state to mitigate those economic damages as well.”

Lee continued, “Through the Department of Labor, the Department of Human Services, our Department of Health, we are providing access to relief for the unemployed, for those who need childcare, for those who have found themselves in a lesser economic situation as a result of COVID-19, and we are about to get relief from the federal government for businesses, for industry and for individuals.”

Tennesseans will rise to the challenge to address the coronavirus crisis, he said. “We have a storm above us, but the storm is passing, and the decisions that we make today and the degree to which Tennesseans rise up and join together today to serve their neighbors, to protect themselves, to take this seriously, the degree to which we rise up together, will provide hope for tomorrow.”

He cited a favorite Scripture verse, Psalms 71: 14, that says, in part, “As for me, I will always have hope.”

On Monday, he took the state’s protective efforts a step further and issued a two-week “safer at home” order. It closes non-essential businesses temporarily and encourages people to stay home and minimize their contact with others.

“This is not a mandated ‘shelter in place’ order, because it remains deeply important to me to protect personal liberties,” Lee said.

The order also says employers cannot require or allow employees with COVID-19 to work.

He has been consulting with epidemiologists, industry representatives and others for more health and economic guidance.

“I’m a mechanical engineer in my background, in my private life, and I believe that decisions are best made with data and evidence, and that’s what we are trying to do to make these decisions.”

As a small business owner himself, Lee said he empathizes with the tough situation that business leaders across the state are facing. He’s been through a devastating economic cycle himself where he had to lay off half his workforce.

“It’s the sort of difficult decisions that difficult days require,” he said.

Lee added that he’s working hard to maximize Tennesseans’ safety and minimize the economic damages. He acknowledged that some people risk losing everything they have saved.

Lee said the state’s successful coronavirus strategy will depend on how the state distributes funds, facilitates unemployment benefits, loosens restrictions on temporary assistance for Tennessee families, injects funding back into small businesses and protects against small and large businesses’ losses.

He concluded, “I want folks to have a loss of livelihood be only a possibility and not a likelihood in this state. And that’s my goal, and that’s my effort. And I believe we can do that.”

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