Apr 24, 2020
Tennessee Governor Bill Lee COVID-19 Briefing Transcript April 24
Tennessee Governor Bill Lee held a press briefing on April 24. He announced a plan for reopening the state economy. Read the full transcript of his updates.
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Governor Bill Lee: (00:00)
… a million times, but I will continue to repeat it. Social distancing works, and it absolutely must continue if we’re going to reopen our economy safely. Tennesseans, you have done what we have asked you to do and we need you to keep it up a little while longer and if we can do that, we can rebuild livelihoods while we continue to save lives. Until we have a vaccine, it is imperative that we all work together, each other, even in small actions like wearing a cloth mask or operating at half capacity. I thank Tennessee businesses for their willingness to put the wellbeing of their employees and customers ahead of everything else. And I also thank the industry groups and the health experts who have worked around the clock to develop and ensure that our Tennessee pledge is practical and effective, will protect lives, and allow Tennesseans to go back to work. I now want to invite Commissioner Ezelle to share more about the Tennessee pledge and the work that the economic recovery group is doing. Clark?
Commissioner Ezelle: (01:14)
Thank you governor Lee. It’s my privilege to serve in this role. As a former third generation family business owner and someone who’s worked in the business community for over 35 years, I’m committed to restoring our state’s economic health and getting Tennesseans back to work safely. As commissioner of tourist development, I’ve seen the devastation firsthand as tens of thousands of my colleagues and friends at restaurants, hotels, attractions, and museums have lost their jobs. The economic shutdown has devastated individual workers and businesses large and small. And thanks to the work of Governor Lee, the health department, unified command group, healthcare workers and all Tennesseans, we are grateful to be at a place where we can focus on getting Tennesseans back to work in 89 counties, with most businesses allowed to open next week. Our economic recovery group has worked around the clock to outline these steps and guidance for a safe, careful and phased reboot of our economy while following federal guidelines to protect citizens.
Commissioner Ezelle: (02:39)
Today we’re pleased to share the first look at our Tennessee pledge with specific guidance for retail and restaurants and how to get them open safely next week in those 89 counties. The Tennessee pledge is our commitment to help Tennesseans get back to work in a safe environment and restore their livelihoods. I want to be clear, we are not returning to business as usual. Within the guidelines released today, we ask that businesses allow employees to continue working from home whenever possible. We want to take steps to protect customers and employees, like temperature checks, cleaning and disinfecting protocols, and wearing cloth face coverings. We want to continue to practice social distancing and avoid gatherings where appropriate spacing is not possible. Together, we must pledge to adhere to these important guidelines to keep our families and neighbors safe. So starting Monday, restaurants will have the ability to operate at a 50% capacity under the guidance we’re sharing today. And on Wednesday, retail will have the ability to operate at 50% capacity.
Commissioner Ezelle: (04:05)
Economic health is important to the livelihoods of all Tennesseans and our economic recovery group will continue to work on communicating, collaborating, connecting with industries to get Tennesseans back to work in a safe and healthy environment. The ERG collaborated with associations that represent over 100,000 businesses and over two million Tennesseans. This is not a one size fits all approach. So we’ll create guidance according to need and we want to be clear, as the governor said, not every industry will be able to reopen safely now or all at once. It’s like a dimmer switch and we’re installing dimmer switches in all of our industries. This will be a gradual return to business, and additional plans will be provided over the upcoming days.
Commissioner Ezelle: (05:07)
So I want to say thank you. Thank you for the feedback from the health experts, state and local partners, business and industry leaders, and from you. For we received responses from over 1,500 Tennesseans in 73 counties, and along with numerous legislators feedback, we’ve taken this feedback and accounted it in our plans for this phased approach. Our economic recovery group will work with a unified command, which includes the department of health, and adjust as we evaluate changing data. Continued testing and contact tracing are critical to ensure that we can reopen the economy and mitigate the spread of this virus. So this is a careful data driven phased approach, because the health and safety of Tennesseans is our number one priority, including restoring our state’s economic health. And I’ll be happy to answer questions. Thank you governor.
Governor Bill Lee: (06:14)
Thank you. Thank you for joining us this morning. There is much information to know about the details regarding this Tennessee pledge and its plans and we’d like to answer any questions regarding that this morning. So happy to open up. We also have Dr. Pearcey here with us today to answer … To help with questions, health questions, where we have members of unified command group and Commissioner Ezelle of our economic recovery group. So let’s get started with questions.
Speaker 1: (06:45)
Thank you governor. First we’ll go to Kim Crucey with the AP. Kim, Your line is open.
Kim Crucey: (06:51)
Hi governor. So I guess my question is how are these guidelines going to be enforced? What is the state’s role in making sure that restaurants and retailers are actually following these best practices?
Governor Bill Lee: (07:06)
Part of this whole approach, Kim, is the gradual lifting of mandates and restrictions and sanctions. That’s how we want to get our economy started back. As businesses open and follow guidelines, customers will be safe to enter those businesses, and we’ll feel safe, and we expect that businesses will take and commit to and post this pledge to take care of their customers, and that will provide a clearance for folks to know that this is a business that I can go into that’s safe. Commissioner, you want to make a couple comments about our expectations for how those businesses will display and will commit to be in that safe environment?
Commissioner Ezelle: (08:01)
Yes. Thank you governor. And it’s an important question that you raise and we believe the Tennessee pledge will allow us a mechanism for businesses to rally around providing safe environment for their workers. Also, businesses will be able to display their commitment to the Tennessee pledge, not only for their workers but also for consumers. And we think that they are committed to providing those safe steps with PPE and pre-check temperature screens and other commitments around social distancing that will protect folks as they began to visit those businesses, and we feel confident in our community’s response to this.
Kim Crucey: (08:48)
But as of right now, there is no intention of the state to enforce these best practices?
Governor Bill Lee: (08:54)
We think that the consumers will enforce them, the business community itself will enforce them, the industry groups that have influence and impact and developed guidelines for industries. That’s how this is going to be enforced. Really what we know is that in the same way that Tennesseans came together to put us in the position to be able to begin to reboot our economy, we know Tennesseans once again will put us in the position to have our economy start back up.
Kim Crucey: (09:28)
Speaker 1: (09:30)
Next we’ll go to Joel Ebert of The Tennesseean. Joel, your line is open.
Joel Ebert: (09:35)
Yeah. Governor, aside from Dr. Pearcey and others in your administration, which specific medical doctors or experts did you talk to while coming up with this plan. And then this week, it sounds like your administration told state lawmakers that you’re working on securing five million masks for every Tennesseean. Why go ahead with these reopenings if you don’t have CDC recommended potentially lifesaving masks for all Tennessee?
Governor Bill Lee: (10:02)
Yeah. So we know that most Tennesseans, many Tennesseans, thousands of them already have found masks for themselves. We expect that to happen, but we want to use this order of five million masks to encourage even broader use, to make it easier, to remind people of our commitment along with theirs to following guidelines that are going to be a part of the new habits that we need to make sure we’re doing so. We’re hoping to actually supplement what Tennesseans are already doing. And as soon as those masks get here, it’ll make it even easier for us to consider the opening of more businesses down the road, so it’s all a part of our phased reopening.
Governor Bill Lee: (10:52)
Regarding doctors, we’ve been working with the Tennessee Medical Association, the Tennessee Hospital Association, health experts in other … Even input from health experts at other states, from epidemiologists in our States with CEOs from major hospitals in each major metropolitan area. So there’s been a number of ways that doctors and healthcare officials have provided input into this strategy.
Speaker 1: (11:27)
Next we’ll go to Sergio Martinez Beltron with WPLN. Sergio, your line is open.
Sergio Martinez Beltron: (11:33)
Thank you [inaudible 00:11:34] and good afternoon, governor. Governor, you have talked about how your administration needs to be looking at the growth rate of the steady decline of the growth rate as one of the metrics to reopen, but the reality is that the growth rate for the last few days has increased. So I’m wondering, I mean, if that’s actually the metric you should be looking at to reopening, and if not, I mean, can you explain a little bit your process behind that?
Governor Bill Lee: (11:58)
Yeah. Thanks, Sergio. There are a lot of metrics that we look at, that being one of them. Dr. Pearcey, you want to talk about that?
Governor Bill Lee: (12:03)
A lot of metrics that we look at, that being one of them. Dr. Piercey, You want to talk about that trajectory and how clinicians look at that?
Dr. Piercey: (12:09)
Sure. The Governor just said a key word, trajectory. Another word you can use is trend and you’re exactly right. The numbers over the last two and perhaps even the last three days are a little bit higher and it tells you exactly why you have to take that into context. Over the last two or three days, we have added the results from our mass prison testing, specifically in in Bledsoe County at Bledsoe Correctional. They’ve had a high number of positive. That’s what we call a high yield population, and anytime you do testing in a high yield population, which is where you expect to get more positives than you would in the general public, those numbers are going to be higher for that day.
Dr. Piercey: (12:53)
I can’t stress the importance of not focusing on just one metric and not focusing on just one day. That’s why we look at multiple metrics over the course of about a 14 day period to determine a trend, because we do expect to see some blips in that. Just as if you were watching the stock market or anything else, you can see a trend over time but not put too much credence into one particular data point.
Speaker 2: (13:21)
Well, Commissioner, so I mean you’ve also talked about when businesses reopen, the state is going to see an increase in cases. I mean, how are you going to still look at those metrics and still get to the conclusion that the right thing to do is opening when you’re still seeing more cases popping up every day?
Dr. Piercey: (13:42)
You make a good point that we are not done looking at data. In fact, I would submit that we need to be more cognizant of how our trends are moving now even than we were before. So we’re looking at things like day over day growth rate. We’re looking at a metric that you may have heard us call, sometimes it’s referenced as R not or R subscript zero which is the reproductive rate. That is the transmission score that is now at about 1.0, but has been much higher in the past. We also look at the overall positivity rates, so how many positive cases we have relative to all of the tests we’ve done, so lots of different metrics to look at. Again, not just one and not just one day.
Speaker 2: (14:31)
Governor, I thank you, Commissioner.
Governor Bill Lee: (14:32)
Speaker 3: (14:34)
Next we’ll go to Chris Davis with News Channel 5. Chris, your line is open.
Chris Davis: (14:40)
Good morning, Governor. The Tennessee Medical Association has recommended a county by county approach for reopening. Have you considered that approach? I also wanted to ask you, Tennessee has tourist destinations across the state. What is your message to out-of-state visitors? When is it okay to come back to Tennessee?
Governor Bill Lee: (14:56)
I’m going to let Commissioner Ezell talk about the specific message and around our tourist destinations, and when we expect those tourist destinations to be opening. Your first question, oh, The Tennessee Medical Association suggested a county by county approach. We’ve also been working with the Tennessee Medical Association in our opening plan, as I said earlier, along with the Tennessee Hospital Association, and what we believe is that the strategy of 89 counties which are the lowest population counties in our state, so that there is a clear understanding across the state of the plan, so that we don’t have a confusion across the state about different plans in different areas.
Governor Bill Lee: (15:51)
That’s really been our strategy, recognizing that our six major metropolitan areas have unique circumstances, which is why we want to work and have been working with the leaders from those metropolitan areas to make sure that we have complimentary opening strategies, but we think we believe that the efforts and the phased-in strategy, the geographic approach that we’re taking, is the one that’s right.
Governor Bill Lee: (16:18)
I’m going to let Commissioner Ezell speak to your tourism question.
Comissioner Ezell: (16:24)
Thank you, Governor. Here’s what we know. What we know is that in those 89 counties, 170,000 people are employed in retail, and we know that 150,000 are employed in restaurants. This week is about opening up those opportunities for some of those people to be able to get back to work. Here’s what we don’t know. We don’t know when we will have solutions for the tourism industry regarding tourist attractions, and so in that careful phased approach, we’ve implemented a strategy that allows us to be able to get Tennesseeans back to work, and we continue to evaluate and work through guidance so that we can, when it’s time, help those tourist attractions and others be able to get back to work. We know right now we are not encouraging travel from other states to come into our communities, because in this careful phased approach, our most important priority again is the safety of all Tennesseeans, but also helping those Tennesseeans who have lost their jobs have the opportunity to get back to work.
Speaker 3: (17:41)
Next we’ll go to Shannon Sharp with WTVC. Shannon, your line is open.
Shannon Sharp: (17:48)
Governor, Hamilton County has been behind in testing since this began. Are you concerned about that with reopening? I know the county mayor has said they plan to reopen along with the guidelines. The city mayor is not, but is that a concern since we’re lagging to keep up with other counties in the state?
Governor Bill Lee: (18:10)
Certainly Hamilton County has made significant improvements in their testing capacity of recent, and they in fact were very helpful in bringing online the baler component of our testing. Dr. Piercey, you want to comment specifically about Hamilton? I’ll comment broadly about the state. We, as a state, are continuing to heavily expand our testing. We have pop-up testing sites all across this state, and one thing that’s important to know, when we have testing shortages in certain regions, we’re able to take the locations where we have surplus and bring them to areas that have a current shortage. We’ve done that in every metropolitan area and every county across the state that’s had a problem, and we feel really encouraged about the testing capacity not only in Hamilton but across the state. You want to talk specifically about that?
Dr. Piercey: (19:06)
Just a brief comment on Hamilton County testing. We had weekend events planned for last weekend, but due to the tornadoes, we postponed those to this weekend. We have pop-up sites in Hamilton County over this weekend, both Saturday and Sunday. Encourage you to go to our website to get specific time and location details, and invite anyone who thinks they need a test to come get a test. We’re also in contact with the local health officials as well as the local healthcare system leaders there to help facilitate testing supplies that they may need there. So, I think we’re making big strides in Hamilton County and continue to, and will continue to support them.
Speaker 3: (19:54)
Next we’ll go to Sam Stockard with the Daily Memphian. Sam, your line is open.
Sam Stockard: (20:00)
Yes, thank you, Governor. The state right now has been [inaudible 00:20:05] these grants to rural hospitals, yet the rural counties have very few COVID-19 cases, and in fact some hospitals are reporting furloughing employees. It seems almost as if the state is paying hospitals not to operate when they could be doing elective surgeries. Now, what’s the thought process behind that, and why not go ahead and open up these hospitals and the dental offices for elective procedures?
Governor Bill Lee: (20:38)
Yeah, that’s a good question, Sam, and I said in my comments that we will be giving information on those elective procedures and the opportunity for hospitals to begin those next week. So you’ll be getting guidance. You’ll be hearing about that guidance and the specific date when those procedures are going to start. But we’re working with the hospital association themselves to get those opening times and those guidance just right. But we are providing assistance to our rural hospitals because of the suspension of these elective surgeries, it has put a financial strain on them, and we need those rural hospitals to continue to operate in those areas.
Governor Bill Lee: (21:21)
Even though rural counties don’t have the mass numbers of cases, they will have cases, and there will be need in rural communities for healthcare associated with COVID and other health related issues as well. So keeping those hospitals operating is important to the people that are in those communities. And I’m pleased that we have worked with and delivered the first round of grants for those. We’re delivering the second round of grants in the coming days. We’ve also been working with those rural hospitals to leverage and to access the federal dollars that are available to them, so they are a very important component of our health care system in this state and the capacity that we need to make sure is there for whatever COVID cases come down the road, and that’s been our approach.
Sam Stockard: (22:18)
Has there been any thought into providing grants for the hospitals, say in Memphis, in Nashville where the most of the cases are?
Governor Bill Lee: (22:25)
Yeah, there’s a significant amount of, or certainly an important amount of federal funding that’s coming as a part of these four phases of federal dollars coming down through the CARES Act that’s going to actually provide funding directly to hospital providers all across the state. Those dollars will be forthcoming and, and that’ll provide assistance specifically to hospitals in every part of the state.
Sam Stockard: (22:56)
Speaker 3: (22:58)
Next we’ll go to Grace King with WBIR. Grace, your line is open.
Grace King: (23:02)
Hey Governor, you mentioned next week will be critical. If the state’s numbers do start to rise again, at what point are you going to consider reversing these measures or putting stricter guidelines back into place?
Governor Bill Lee: (23:13)
Yeah. You know, in the same way that we follow data to make decisions about how it is that we got us to the place where we are today, the data decisions that really drove our fight to slow the spread of it, that’s that same kind of data that we will watch going forward, and we will make decisions about particular issues as we see something happen. It’s very difficult to predict what those will be, where they will be, what that will look like, but we’re very committed to the health of Tennesseeans and to the public safety. That’s the utmost commitment. That’s the utmost priority. When we start looking at data going forward, as we begin to open our economy, that’s what we’re going to be looking at, where do we have any risk that is getting to a place that needs-
Governor Bill Lee: (24:03)
… That is, getting to a place that needs to have some sort of different action than the action we’re taking, and we’ll take it when it’s applicable.
Speaker 4: (24:14)
Next, we’ll go to Alex Apple with Fox 17. Alex, your line is open.
Alex Apple: (24:19)
Governor, two quick questions for you. But you just mentioned a second round of grants for rural hospitals. Do you know how much that will be? And secondly, did you provide a notice to local law enforcement agencies that they can police this how they want to, akin to how you did several weeks ago when you put the stay at home order in effect as a mandate? Is that a similar scenario now?
Governor Bill Lee: (24:44)
Yeah, as we said earlier, we’re going to be putting this Tennessee pledge out there, not as a mandate, but as I set of guidelines and as best practices that will allow these businesses to take that pledge and allow consumers to know which businesses have done that, that will provide the kind of safe environment that we have out there, Alex. What was your first question?
Alex Apple: (25:11)
Do you know how much money is going to be in the second round of funding for rural hospitals?
Governor Bill Lee: (25:14)
Well, the total amount is $10 million, and the specific amount of the second round I don’t have. We’re getting applications, and I’ve already received applications from those providers for those grants. Part of what we’re using that grant money to do is to leverage federal dollars so that when those small hospitals get one of these grants from the state, it allows them to be matched with federal dollars. So, we look at the individual needs of that hospital to create that grant process. I don’t have the specific numbers around those grants or the amounts they’ll be, but the total pool of that available to those rural hospitals is $10 million, which actually leverages significant more than that in federal dollars.
Alex Apple: (26:01)
So, it’s more than a one-to-one match scenario?
Governor Bill Lee: (26:06)
Many times it is more than a one-to-one match. I think in our first round we talked about the first grant receiving $1 million and pulling down $7 million. That’s not a formula. That was a particular circumstance, but there’s significantly more federal dollars going to healthcare providers than state dollars. But this $10 million in state grants was to be a bridge between the time that these hospitals needed the operating dollars and the time when the available federal dollars would be delivered. We wanted to bridge that gap and that was the goal of these grants.
Speaker 4: (26:54)
Next, we’ll go to David Floyd with the Johnson City Press. David, your line is open.
David Floyd: (27:00)
Hey, Governor. I think you had mentioned that you’re anticipating to release more guidance for hospitals and physician groups next week, but is there anything you can say now about what that guidance would entail when it comes to elective procedures, access to facilities, and visitation?
Governor Bill Lee: (27:20)
Yeah, I wish I could give more information, but what’s most important is that we give detailed information. When we deliver that information, we want it to be clear so that people understand exactly what’s necessary to go back safely to procedures and surgeries. So, we’re working with the healthcare community right now to develop those certain, clear, detailed, safe, guidelines and they’ll be available in the next few days. We can’t deliver those yet because they’re not ready, and we want to make sure that people are safe and that the facilities are safe. And that’s why we’ll be waiting a couple more days to deliver that information.
David Floyd: (28:04)
Okay. And are there still restrictions in place on elective procedures currently?
Governor Bill Lee: (28:10)
There are. Those restrictions currently are in place to the 30th of April. I believe that dates correct. I’ll have to look back at the executive order, but we’ll be providing information on when those procedures will be able to be safely returned to, and we expect that’ll be in the next few days.
David Floyd: (28:34)
Speaker 4: (28:35)
Next, we’ll go to Chris Bundgaard with WKRN. Chris, your line is open.
Chris Bundgaard: (28:42)
Good morning, Governor.
Governor Bill Lee: (28:42)
Chris Bundgaard: (28:43)
It’s been a while since we’ve said that. Here’s my question.
Governor Bill Lee: (28:46)
Yeah, you’re right.
Chris Bundgaard: (28:47)
Would you… Yeah, somebody said good afternoon. I understand that sometimes you can get these things screwed up, but would you urge Tennesseans to go out and eat in restaurants on Monday and go shop on Wednesday?
Governor Bill Lee: (29:03)
Oh, I want Tennessee to know that we want our economy to open up in a slow, measured, stepped approach. I want Tennesseans to have the opportunity to do that. That’s what I want. I want people to feel safe. I want businesses to provide a safe environment. I want business owners to have the opportunity to begin creating livelihoods for their employers and for their own families. All of those are the things that we want to happen, and I would encourage Tennesseans to engage in that as they feel so fit.
Chris Bundgaard: (29:43)
And I had one more question if I can slip that in. There were a lot of big numbers tossed out at the beginning in your remarks. I’ve asked this before, but it may be changing each day or… What about the state budget, the emergency budget that was passed? Does it look like that may be have to be readjusted at this point, or is it too soon?
Governor Bill Lee: (30:05)
You know, because the real data for the revenues for the state are not complete… I mean, we’re just beginning to understand. It’s too soon to say with certainty what’s going to happen, for sure. It’s not too soon to say that we know that there is going to be a significant downturn in this economy. As we said earlier, they’re predictions of a $5 billion loss in gross domestic product in this state. That will mean there would be major revenue loss to our state, and our budget will have to be evaluated with that as a backdrop.
Governor Bill Lee: (30:52)
Now, the legislature is due to reconvene in June, and that will be the primary responsibility of the body as that they come together and we work together to make decisions about our state’s budget. That work is already being considered. We’ve already begun talking to leaders in the legislature about what those projections might look like and what those decisions will be. So, it’s not too soon to say that it will clearly be one of the most important lines of business for our office and for the legislature in the days and weeks and months ahead. It’s a little too soon to know what those numbers might be.
Chris Bundgaard: (31:37)
Governor Bill Lee: (31:37)
Speaker 4: (31:39)
That’s all the time we have for questions this morning. Governor, if you would like to make a closing statement.
Governor Bill Lee: (31:44)
Thank you very much. Thanks for joining us for this special morning briefing, a very special briefing indeed because it is the day when we can celebrate what Tennesseans have done and congratulate Tennesseans for the efforts that they have made to mitigate and slow the spread of COVID-19 to get us to a point where we can begin the process of gradually reopening. But we only celebrate that because it has gotten us to this place. What we also say is, it’s time to reengage in a greater way.
Governor Bill Lee: (32:18)
Now more than ever, Tennesseans need to do their part to stay apart and make sure they socially distance and follow the guidelines and wash their hands and stay home when they’re sick and do all of the things that are going to allow us to continue down this path, to continue to open more businesses, to continue to put more Tennesseans back to work, and to continue to move to the place that we want to be in the midst of this pandemic. Very grateful for the work that’s been done, very grateful for this day and the place that we’re in, and very hopeful for the future. Thanks for joining us.