May 21, 2020
Tennessee Governor Bill Lee COVID-19 Briefing Transcript May 21
Tennessee Governor Bill Lee held a press briefing on May 21. Lee will sign order to allow groups of up to 50 people to gather. Read the full speech transcript here.
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Bill Lee: (00:00)
Before we start, I want to take a moment to say a word or two about the upcoming Memorial Day Weekend, and in particular what it means for me this year, and really means for Americans, people all across this country. Last weekend, Maria and I had the privilege of delivering packages through an organization called A Soldier’s Child to five gold star families here in our State. These are families who have lost a family member in active duty, in service in the military. And in the case of the five families that we visited, we visited with children who had lost their dad while serving in the military. It was a poignant reminder to me and to Maria that the liberty and the freedom that we enjoy in this country comes at a great cost, and there are those who make the ultimate sacrifice for that liberty and that freedom.
Bill Lee: (01:04)
Meeting those families and interacting with those children reminded me of that, and it reminded me that that is really why we celebrate this Memorial Day Weekend. Memorial Day is a fun weekend. For most of us we have traditions, it’s the start of summer, but it’s also a stark reminder and time for us to honor those who, in fact, have made our life in America possible. And we lost four Tennesseans this year in the line of duty, in service through the military. And we remember in particular those four families and the thousands of families that come before them that have paid this sacrifice. I’d like for all of us to take just a moment of silence to remember these four families in particular. Thank you.
Bill Lee: (02:07)
Today I want to share further information about our ever increasingly important testing strategy as we move forward. I want to talk a little bit about partnerships that we have that are important as we navigate the COVID-19 landscape. And I want to talk a little bit more about how it is that we get safely, how we get our economy and get Tennesseans back to work, and get our economy humming again. So we’ll be talking about all of those things today. Department of Labor and Workforce Development commissioner, Jeff McCord, will be here to talk about unemployment in Tennessee right now. General Holmes will provide an update regarding the Tennessee National Guard, and the efforts that they are making all across the State in serving our people. Dr. Dunn, our chief epidemiologists will give the health report today as Dr. Peircey is out. I want to talk a bit about testing. Our ability to quickly identify cases through expanding testing efforts has really been core in helping Tennesseans make informed decisions about their own health, and to learn if they are COVID-19 positive and to quarantine quickly. We are very encouraged by our continued commitment to expanded testing. This is how it is that we are able to reboot our economy and get people back to work, but be safe at the same time, is expanding this testing. We’re proud that the Harvard Global Health Institute study just recently reported that there were really, in their view, only seven States that are testing enough to reopen their economies, and Tennessee was one of those, and was heralded as one of the best testing States in the country.
Bill Lee: (03:53)
In the first 20 days of May, in fact, we performed as many tests, roughly 177,000 tests in the first 20 days of May, as we have performed in all the previous weeks of the pandemic. We expect to reach our goal of testing 3% of our population in the month of May, that’s a 50% increase. In the month of April we tested 2% of our population, 3% in the month of May. This month, we’ve tested our entire inmate population. We’ve worked with every major metro urban housing development agency to provide voluntary free testing. We have tested in all of our veterans homes. We have supported testing with our intellectual and developmental disability community, and we continue to work with our longterm care facilities, with the goal of having all residents and all staff tested within the coming weeks.
Bill Lee: (04:48)
We’re now actively evaluating next steps for expanded testing, particularly for testing certain populations weekly, populations like the staff of nursing homes to continue to protect our elderly, the most vulnerable in this COVID-19 pandemic. And we want to also just continue to encourage every Tennessean. If you have any reason to think that you need to get a test, when in doubt get a test. If you’re sick, get a test. If you’re going back to work, get a test. If you have any reason at all that you think you might want to get a test, go out and get one. They’re free, they’re available in your health department in every County, five days a week. There are popup testing sites around the State at different times, on different weekends. There are private testing labs all across Tennessee. We have a good supply of testing capacity in our State, and it’s really important that Tennesseans continue to test so that we can continue to open our economy more rapidly and to get people back to work, making sure that we get them back to work into a safe environment, and testing is a key to that.
Bill Lee: (06:03)
Thanks to social distancing and Tennesseans adaptations to that, their personal responsibility of implementing social distancing, thanks to that, and swift identification of cases, we continue to meet the Federal White House gating criteria for safe reopening, and we are encouraged with how that progress is being made here in Tennessee. The strength of our testing is a testament to the power of the private sector, and it’s also a testament to partnerships that we have made regarding other impacts to our society that COVID-19 has brought.
Bill Lee: (06:42)
Earlier this week, speaking of one of those partnerships, I joined the YMCA in Memphis to distribute meals to families in need. This particular YMCA program in partnership with a local church in their community distributes almost 900 meals a day through their program, and I witnessed firsthand and was able to participate in that meal distribution. The YMCAs has been a tremendous partner. The Boys and Girls Club along with the YMCAs have been a strong and important partner, particularly in providing free childcare for essential workers throughout our State.
Bill Lee: (07:21)
Today, the department of human services is expanding support for those essential workers who are serving our communities in the pandemic, all categories now of essential workers identified in previous executive order, all categories are eligible for COVID-19 essential employee childcare payment assistance program. This change makes the program available to essential workers in financial, religious, utility, hotel industries among others. Existing applicants who fit into one of these expanded categories, they don’t need to apply again, even if their application was previously denied, or if their application is still in process.
Bill Lee: (08:05)
Commissioner Danielle Barnes is here with us today with Department of Human Services. She will be on tap to answer any questions about our expanded access to childcare. And additionally, the program has been expanded to provide this payment assistance until mid August, 2020. So we can keep essential employees on the job, especially throughout this summer, as we ramp our economy back up here in Tennessee.
Bill Lee: (08:32)
I want to talk a bit about education. This week we’re celebrating the class of 2020, and certainly that class of 2020 has had to celebrate in a different way than any class in history in this State, but nonetheless, we are proud of those graduates and their accomplishments. All week, the Department of Ed has been sharing messages from Tennessee leaders, celebrities, from folks all across the State to join in congratulating this class. We want you to be a part of that. Everyone can join by sharing their message for the class of 2020 using the #classof2020TN. So share your message with our graduates across the State.
Bill Lee: (09:18)
The school year is coming to a close, but we want to continue to support continued learning for students all summer. For the past two months through a partnership with our PBS stations here in Tennessee, families and students have been able to access daily instructional content on television. This content is Tennessee created, with Tennessee teachers, and Tennessee curriculum, but this content is available through television to families across the State. And thanks for that continued partnership with those PBS stations, families will have this instructional content throughout the summer. It’s available every day from 10 to 12 central time, and it focuses on grades one through six. More details about that partnership and the content available to all families all summer for kids instructional, for education instruction, will be available through the department soon.
Bill Lee: (10:15)
Also all families continue to have access to early childhood learning platforms through September. This resource is made possible through a partnership with the Governor’s Early Literacy Foundation. I also want to take a moment to thank my predecessor, Governor Bill Haslam, and his wife, Chrissy Haslam, for their recent announcement to provide the resources through their foundation, to provide for a thousand tutors, a network of tutors for students all across the State of Tennessee. This effort will help with our efforts in the department, and efforts in communities all across Tennessee to make sure that kids, particularly in this time of educational challenge through COVID-19, that kids have access to-
Bill Lee: (11:02)
… reading, to tutoring, to literacy. And we’re deeply grateful for Governor Haslam for Crissy Haslam. They have had a lifetime of commitment to education and they continue that in the state today. So thanks to them. As we look ahead already to the next school year, Department of Education’s working on guidance that will be available to all of our school districts. Reopening tool kits are forthcoming and will be available on the Department’s website in the next few days.
Bill Lee: (11:32)
We have every expectation that school will be back open in the fall and we all look forward to that. I have just recently signed an executive order today that moves to really create more consistency, to allow us to open up our economy and to open up our labs in a safe way, but in a greater way in Tennessee moving forward. This executive order will allow groups of up to 50 people to participate in social recreational activities up from groups of 10 to 50.
Bill Lee: (12:05)
And while this number is increased, we want to remind everybody the reason that we have gotten here is because Tennesseans had been committed to social distancing. We can lift restrictions and open up our economy, but we can never forget that social distancing continues to mitigate the spread of this virus, which still exists in our communities. It still exists in our state. It’s a public health threat and we remember that as we go out, as we gather, as we do the things that we’re beginning to do, that we remember that social distancing as a part of the way that we do this and address it safely.
Bill Lee: (12:43)
This order also addresses requirements with respect to social and recreational gatherings. It really is an effort, this executive order to expand opportunities for us to expand our economy. But it also allows us to be consistent with federal guidance and input from counties around our state, including the six counties that have their own independent health departments.
Bill Lee: (13:08)
The coordination between these counties and our major metropolitan areas, and the state has been unprecedented. It has allowed us to be able to open up our economies together in the right way and the right timing and the right steps, so that we can stay safe and get people back to work.
Bill Lee: (13:27)
As a part of this executive order as announced earlier this week, larger attractions and bars may reopen if their operations are consistent with the Tennessee Pledge guidelines. We want to get more Tennesseans back to work safely through these Tennessee Pledge guidelines. We have a historic unemployment rate of 14.7% in our state.
Bill Lee: (13:52)
It is the reason that we must stay committed to mitigate the spread of COVID, but we must stay committed to a reboot and a reopening of Tennessee’s economy, so we can get people off the unemployment roles and back into their employers. Dr. McCord, if you would come up, please, I want you to share your report regarding the latest on unemployment numbers in Tennessee.
Dr. McCord: (14:21)
Thank you, governor. I’d just like to run through a few numbers if I could, on where we are and what we’re doing new as far as unemployment goes. So from the week ending March 14th to May 9th, overall around a half a million claims, initial claims came in. We ended last week and we talked in some meetings earlier today that of that number, there were still about 50,000 claims that are pending. And when we say pending, we mean that there hasn’t been a determination made on those claims yet for whatever reason.
Dr. McCord: (14:58)
This week we’ve made some substantial progress and that number is now gone from 50,000 to 22,000. Most of those claims are in the April-March timeframe, but there are a small percentage that are still in that March timeframe, but we know that there are people behind those percentages. So some of the things that we are doing to get to those old claims and process those old claims are a few things, but some main things in particular as we go through this pandemic and we get to the claims that are harder to process, we find that we not only have a people issue, we have an expertise issue.
Dr. McCord: (15:38)
And so with that expertise issue, we’re increasing our adjudicators from about 45 to 70. They’re in training right now, so that they can process. We have more manpower and person power to process those claims. We also are increasing our claims agents, people who have the knowledge to solve some of the more difficult claims as they come in. So that number will go from about 118 to about 145 next week.
Dr. McCord: (16:04)
Typically, it will take months or even years to get that kind of expertise, but we’ve had a lot of practice lately and we’ve had some people really stepping up to do this work. And so we’re going to leverage that passion and that ability to move forward and help us address some of these older, older claims. I do want to talk a little bit about what we’re doing systematically and programmatically.
Dr. McCord: (16:32)
We’ve amplified some of the expertise we do have. So we’re solving common issues across the system at the same time, so that allows us to do things like go from 50,000 to 22,000 in a matter of days. Finally, on new things, phone volume remains very high and we’ve done analysis. And we find that there are a concentrated number of callers making the phone calls. And so next week, what we plan to do is turn on our voicemail system so we can understand exactly what those issues are and respond to those claimants who are seeking help and actually get to the customer service level that we all want to be at.
Dr. McCord: (17:16)
The last thing I’ll mention governor is we have implemented and built the three new systems, the unemployment compensation systems as required under the CARES Act. So those are built, all three of them and distributing benefits. And now our focus of expertise and our people and our effort is on processing those claims. Thank you.
Bill Lee: (17:38)
Thank you. Joe Holmes, if you would come up and share your report on the good work of the National Guard.
Joe Holmes: (17:45)
Thank you, sir. Your National Guard has now tested over 85,000 Tennesseans over a number of weeks and as part of the Unified Command Group’s strategic goal as directed by the governor, we have assisted the various housing authorities and public housing in both Nashville, Knoxville, and Memphis.
Joe Holmes: (18:06)
This past week, we currently concluded our first day of testing and Chattanooga with a lot of success, a lot of support. And this was through a lot of efforts by the local authorities, local entities. A lot of organizations came out and supported that they offered various services and information to those populations and it’s much appreciated. And we’ll continue to look for opportunities. We had a strategic meeting this morning looking for additional opportunities in support of Department of Health and looking at locations that we can test bringing testing to every Tennessean and that desires a test. We want to make it as convenient as possible.
Joe Holmes: (18:49)
And if I may, I’d like to make a brief comment about Memorial Day. In my opinion, this is our nation’s most solemn national day of remembrance. And it’s an opportunity to remember the men and women that have come before us that made the ultimate sacrifice and remember also their families. I think one of our nation’s strengths is the gratitude and recognition that is shown by our citizens on Memorial Day. And that tradition is sustained by passing that down to our next generation.
Joe Holmes: (19:21)
And I think as COVID has affected virtually every aspect of our life, realizing that our school system is not in session, the universities do not have classes. I think this next generation, our youth might miss a very valuable opportunity. The various events that occur at churches, at schools and things like that that honor these great Americans who’ve made this sacrifice are not available.
Joe Holmes: (19:45)
So I think we should pay special attention to this next generation. And at some point this weekend, and on Monday, I would hope that we would all take the time to educate and inform this next generation, our youth on the importance of remembering these great sacrifices and will that do and so we will ensure that this next generation holds that honor at the highest level. Thank you.
Bill Lee: (20:11)
Thank you, sir. Dr. Don, if you would come up please and share a health report.
Dr. Dunn: (20:19)
Okay. Thank you, governor. I just wanted to say a special word of thanks to our state and local health department partners who are working under the Unified Command with TEMA and with the Department of Military, with the National Guard to respond to COVID. Today, the number of cases reported is 18,961. That’s an increase of 429 cases.
Dr. Dunn: (20:42)
Since yesterday, we’re encouraged by the growth of the number recovered that we see. That number is over 12,000 now. Unfortunately, there were four new deaths reported today. That’s a total of 313 deaths since the coronavirus reached Tennessee. We are also encouraged the number of new cases daily has remained steady. Similarly, the number of COVID cases that are hospitalized and the number of requiring intensive care has also remained steady.
Dr. Dunn: (21:14)
Hospital assets are available and also on a steady. We’ve seen an expected, slight decrease in hospital bed availability and that’s related to the resumption of electric procedures. We want to continue to encourage Tennesseans to get tested as the governor said. That’s a very important aspect of this response so that we can see the trend and understand what’s happening with COVID across the state. This is especially important as our economy reopens.
Dr. Dunn: (21:43)
As a reminder, medical providers can access testing. Your County health department can provide testing. The metropolitan health departments can provide testing and our remote assessment sites are also available. So we want to strongly encourage people to get testing as you return to your normal activities and help us to monitor what’s happening across the state
Dr. Dunn: (22:03)
The unified command is going to continue to make this a very high priority and to look at all options to make testing available to people in Tennessee. That partnership with TEMA and the National Guard has been an integral part of what the governor referenced earlier in Tennessee’s success in doing testing.
Dr. Dunn: (22:25)
The governor also mentioned a focused on vulnerable populations, and this is going to continue to be a high priority for us. We’ve all seen that COVID-19 affects the elderly and those with preexisting medical conditions and with the worst outcomes. So we will continue to have a focus on those groups, as has been discussed already. The emphasis on longterm carefully testing in the month of May is ongoing, and we’re seeing some momentum towards completion. As of today, those that have scheduled testing or completed it, 45% of facilities are on that list.
Dr. Dunn: (23:02)
This week. CMS also released guidance that’s consistent with what we’re doing in Tennessee. So we’re proud to be ahead, in terms of what we’re doing, as it relates to what CMS is now asking of longterm care facilities.
Dr. Dunn: (23:17)
Lastly, we’re encouraged that the case counts and trends continue to be flat, as we approach this four week mark with reopening activities around the state. Also some encouraging news from HHS this morning, that one of the four candidate vaccines is being pushed forward with more trials, and perhaps availability late in 2020.
Dr. Dunn: (23:41)
The last thing I’ll just reiterate what the Governor said in terms of those basic measures that we can’t forget. We need people to continue to do social distancing, to use good hand hygiene, to stay home when you’re sick. Those are going to be the continued measures that are going to help us get through COVID and get back to our normal activities. Thank you.
Bill Lee: (24:03)
Thank you, doctor.
Bill Lee: (24:10)
We’ll take questions here in a minute. We have on board as you know, Commissioner McCord, General Holmes, Doctor Dunn, Commissioner Barnes, members of Unified Command, and we’ll open up the lines for questions.
Speaker 1: (24:24)
Thank you, Governor. First, we’ll go to Joel Ebert with the Tennesseean. Joel, your line is open.
Joel Ebert: (24:30)
Governor, next week the legislature is returning. Obviously, there seems to be very different approaches between the two chambers. The Senate, [inaudible 00:24:40] essential, only bills and financial related stuff. The House has already scheduled things like the Bible Bill, the [inaudible 00:24:49] Abortion and Gun Bill. What will your offices approach be on some of those controversial pieces of legislation? Will you get behind those, and have folks advocating for those of you think that you agreed more with the Senate?
Bill Lee: (25:04)
You know, what I most agree with Joel is that, the legislature really has the responsibility to set the agenda, and they’ll do so. And I’m talking with a leadership and legislature and with members and as the time approaches, I think those bodies will come together. We all know that the greatest importance in this agenda coming forward is going to be the budget and how we address that budget, the economic downturn that’s been created, that will be the overriding concern of everyone in the legislature, because that’ the greatest responsibility that we have is to be stewards, particularly in this difficult time. I think we’ll see the bodies determine together what is most important and particularly how it impacts the budget. And I suspect those will be the things that are brought forth, and we will work together with the legislature in whatever agenda they come forth with.
Joel Ebert: (26:13)
And what would you do in this scenario of say something that you know is not in your view, deemed essential lands on your desk? Would you consider vetoing it?
Bill Lee: (26:23)
Well, if both chambers of the legislature believed that something is appropriate and important for us now, then I suspect that I would as well. I mean, every bill that comes across my desk, I will individually consider it. But, I’ve had a history so far with working with the legislature on what they believe together to be important. And when they deliver those to my desk and then I am generally in agreement with their suggestions.
Joel Ebert: (27:00)
And then real quick, I wanted to follow up on Dr. Dunn’s mentioned about elective surgeries, I believe leading to possibly an increase in the lack of beds available. Can he elaborate on that a little bit more? I don’t know the latest numbers if you guys can share those at all?
Bill Lee: (27:15)
Do you have those numbers or just general?
Dr. Dunn: (27:18)
Just in general, we expected that, as facilities began to do elective procedures, there was sometimes an overnight hospitalization. So it’s not surprising to us that the bed availability has gone down slightly. So we’re continuing to monitor those metrics. All of the other hospital capacity metrics look very good. In general, hospitals want to keep that’s full. And so we’re in a different situation now with COVID, where we are very closely monitoring the empty beds for capacity, in regards to response to COVID.
Joel Ebert: (27:53)
Speaker 1: (27:56)
Next, we’ll go to Kim [inaudible 00:27:57] with the [inaudible 00:05:57], Kim, your line is open.
Thank you. Hi Governor. So earlier this week, you had mentioned that you believe that the testing of nursing homes will likely be completed by the end of the month. We know that took a fraction of the state 700, [inaudible 00:28:21] longterm care facilities have been tested. Do you still believe that those are going to be completed by the end of the month, for the testing?
Bill Lee: (28:29)
Well, 45% have either completed or scheduled that testing. And we certainly believe that many more are going to. It’s rapidly changing every day that the numbers of facilities that are either scheduling or doing that testing are increasing. So we hope that the facilities will be completed by the end of May. We are working hard with the association and with individual nursing homes to make sure that happens. We’ll implement the steps necessary to get that done, but we do feel confident. Whether they all finished by the end of May 31st or not, we don’t know; there may be some that don’t in that timeframe, but shortly thereafter we expect every resident and every staff to be tested.
So what happens is if a facility doesn’t get tested by the end of the month, do they face any potential… What’s going to happen on the state’s end?
Bill Lee: (29:23)
Yeah. We’re actually working on rules that will require that for nursing homes in the future. And so we’re working on that plan going forward, but we actually expect that the nursing homes are going to comply with this without that rule. But we’ll put that in place in the event that there is a facility that might not get their testing done.
Speaker 1: (29:50)
Next we’ll go to Rebecca [inaudible 00:29:52] with News 4. Rebecca, your line is open.
Yeah. Good afternoon, Governor. My question is for you and Commissioner [inaudible 00:08:00]. Yesterday, state representative John Ray Clemmons, Gloria Johnson and Jason Hodges held a Zoom meeting with Tennessee residents who are still waiting for their unemployment claims to be processed. And in that call, those representatives demanded the Governor and Commissioner McCord be more transparent when it comes to jobless claims and processing them. What is your response to that?
Bill Lee: (30:21)
Well, I think Commissioner McCord just gave a report that told the exact number of claims that have not been completed. And as you know, every claim is not the same. Some of them are more difficult to process. Commissioner McCord, you want to specifically address that again and give your report?
Dr. McCord: (30:40)
Sure. We want to be transparent. And as much as we can, we’ve been over our heads working hard, and to get this data out, and we’d love to get the data out. And so, again, what we’ve done is we’ve gone from late last week, 50,000 of those pending claims, the ones that haven’t made a determination, and we’ve taken that so far this week down to 22,000. We know there’s harder claims, we’re training people to get to those harder claims. We have six claims teams of 12 to 18 people working from the oldest claim first. And I share the passion. I share the passion that we need to get for these folks, and so does everybody in my department share that passion. And we’re turning that passion into action. And we’ll be as transparent is we need to be, as we can be, as we go through, and as we get the information to give the information to those who need it.
Thank you Commissioner.
Speaker 1: (31:41)
Next we’ll go to Sergio Martínez-Beltrán with WPLN. Sergio your line is open.
Sergio Martínez-Beltrán: (31:47)
Thank you. And good afternoon Governor. Earlier this week, the Court of Appeals decided at the State School Voucher program could not be implemented until the state’s appeal is resolved. We know that the state has said that the time between now and June 15 is crucial for the implementation of the program, but the hearing is on August 5th. So I was wondering, I mean, are you considering pulling the plug on this one, or do you think the program should still move forward, despite this period?
Bill Lee: (32:17)
Well, we’ve actually asked the Attorney General, actually the Attorney General has asked, they have filed a motion to ask the Tennessee Supreme Court to take this case. And that motion also asked for a stay of the injunction, pending the appeal. So the court will be the determinant of what happens here. What I hope is that low income children who are zoned for a low performing school will have access to a high quality education. That is what the Education Savings Account Program is; it is an effort to provide a high quality education to every single kid in our state, regardless of the zip code-
Bill Lee: (33:03)
… they live in and that is something that I think is incredibly important. I certainly hope that the court views it that way and that’s what the outcome will be. These kids need the opportunity to that educational choice. The 22,000 plus families that believe that that choice was the best for their children and had signed up for the program so far or have made application to it, I think they deserve that choice and I hope they get it.
Speaker 2: (33:37)
When did the attorney general filed that motion?
Bill Lee: (33:40)
Speaker 2: (33:42)
When did the attorney general filed the motion?
Bill Lee: (33:46)
I don’t know exactly, but I think they filed that just today.
Speaker 2: (33:50)
Today. Okay. I’m going to have a second question for you. This is regarding prisons. Have you made any decisions about conducting another round of testing prisons with a large number of COVID cases?
Bill Lee: (34:03)
Well, we continued to test in prisons in the ways that we originally tested, which was when we find additional cases or we have symptomatic inmates, then we will start that testing process over. If ever we determine or have any reason to believe that there is another prison outbreak, we’ll go through the processes that we’ve been through before. We have a very strong protocol, particularly now that we have tested every inmate in our prison population. If we determine that we need to do that again, we will. But, we’ll take that one step at a time and make sure that testing is available to those inmates if they need it.
Speaker 2: (34:49)
Thank you, governor.
Bill Lee: (34:50)
Next, we’ll go to Caleb Perhne with WCYB. Caleb, your line is open.
Caleb Perhne: (34:58)
Hello, governor. You were just talking about the executive order to allow groups of up to 50 as well as the changes coming tomorrow to open large venues. Talking about that and being Memorial Day weekend, thoughts go to Sevier County, do you encourage people from other states to come to Tennessee to vacation?
Bill Lee: (35:20)
Well, we have opened those venues in a way that allow for people to enjoy them, so we haven’t made a particular outreach. I certainly haven’t been involved in a particular outreach to encourage, but we want our economy to open back up. We want Tennesseeans to get back to work. We want tax revenues to increase again. We want to begin to mitigate this tremendous budget challenge that we have as a state. So, we hope that people will, in fact, engage with our businesses here in Tennessee because we’ve created an environment and those businesses that’s safe for patrons, that’s safe for the employees. We have put a particular emphasis and a focus in that part of our state because of the number of folks that travel there. Commissioner Ezell, would you like to make a comment or two? As you know, Mark Ezell heads up our economic recovery group and has been on the ground in Sevier County. You want to make a couple comments there?
Commissioner Mark Ezell: (36:29)
Yes. Just since the question came about Sevier County, we’re excited to see that the towns of Pigeon Forge, Sevierville, and Gatlinburg actually went proactive in providing customers to have free masks that’ll be provided. Thousands of these were made this week and are being delivered so that on Friday, as some of those attractions open, those communities will provide for customers as they come to their town. Tennessee’s going to be a place that’s safe for visitors when you come. This is part of the Tennessee Pledge. We appreciate the folks of Sevier County being ready, not only to take care of the businesses and the workers, but also their customers that are coming in.
Bill Lee: (37:11)
Caleb Perhne: (37:11)
That’s all. Thank you.
Bill Lee: (37:17)
Next, we’ll go to Andy Sher with the Times Free Press. Andy, your line is open.
Andy Sher: (37:25)
Hi, governor. I guess getting back to the general assembly, of course, two of those bills that the Health wants to consider are your bill. You took leadership on the abortion bill and also won the gun bills, I recall, so don’t you have some degree of control over those bills?
Bill Lee: (37:48)
Well, Andy, as I said before, the legislature, this session is a unique session certainly. It’s unique primarily because we are in a situation that we have not found ourselves in many, many years economically, potentially historically in a situation that we’ve not found ourselves. That’ll be the primary concern for every legislator up here. We all know, as public servants and as those who are responsible for the taxpayer money, that managing this state’s budget and coming to a place of managing that budget, it’s the most important thing that’s going to happen. The legislature themselves will determine what other issues rise to the level of importance and that should be brought forth to my desk. I am working with them daily as they determine that agenda and we’ll continue to do so, as I said earlier. If they bring forth bills together that they think should be part of Tennessee’s law, then certainly that something that I’ll consider.
Andy Sher: (39:02)
We know in legislative situations, I’ve seen entire budgets being taken hostage when one side wants to further their objective. What are you doing in a situation like that?
Bill Lee: (39:16)
Well, I have a great deal of trust in this legislature. They’re responsible. They’ve shown responsible behavior. Of course, they have. They’re public servants who are advocating on behalf of their citizens. I have a great deal of respect for this legislature. Our ability to work together, we’ve shown that in the last year and a half. That’s what I think is going to happen in June.
Andy Sher: (39:41)
Next, we’ll go to Kara Hartnett with the Nashville Post. Kara, your line is open.
Kara Hartnett: (39:49)
Hi, thanks for taking questions. There’s been a lot of talks about another outbreak this winter. I was just wondering what your position on that is and how the administration is preparing longterm?
Bill Lee: (39:59)
I think what our administration has made an attempt to do and has really, I believe, accomplished over the last 10 weeks and will do so for the next 10 months is to be prepared for whatever comes our way. We have been very diligent to follow information and data. That’s how we have made decisions up to today. That’s what we’ll do in the days forward. There’s a lot unknown about the months ahead, including treatments, vaccines, the actual behavior of this virus. We learned early on that models are not nearly as valuable to us as actual data. Projections about what might happen in the winter are, to me, they’re premature right now, but we will be prepared for them. As you know, we opened up alternative care facility last week that had 400 beds in the case of a surge that we don’t see right now, but that could happen in the future. That’s really important is that we are prepared for whatever comes and we will be.
Kara Hartnett: (41:11)
Great. Thank you.
Bill Lee: (41:12)
Next, we’ll go to Shannen Sharpe with WTVC. Shannen, your line is open.
Shannen Sharpe: (41:19)
Governor, we’ve heard reports of cluster in Rhea County at a farm where migrant workers are employed there. Is the state aware of this and getting involved in any way at this time?
Bill Lee: (41:34)
Doctor Dunn, you want to make a comment about that?
Dr. Dunn: (41:38)
Sure. We are aware of a cluster in Rhea County and it is related to a farm. We’re working closely with the regional health department there, who is also very engaged at the farm level with the leadership and ownership there. Similar to some of the other outbreaks that we’ve seen around the state related to meat processing facilities, anytime we have a large aggregation of people, it increases the risk for transmission, so we’re very aware. We’re working with our local partners to implement isolation and quarantine as appropriate as we would with any other type of outbreak.
That’s all the time we have for questions. Go ahead, governor, if you’d like to make a closing statement.
Bill Lee: (42:30)
Thank you again for joining us. Thank you for the questions. We hope that this is an opportunity to continue to provide information that’s so important for Tennesseeans as we move forward. We have very hopeful days ahead. We have a very important weekend ahead. It’s already been mentioned twice, but stop, take the time, remember the great sacrifices that have been made for us to have the liberty and freedom and to live the lives that we do here in America.
Bill Lee: (42:57)
We have great hope for the future of Tennessee and the efforts that we’re making to mitigate the spread of this historic pandemic, and to be able to open up our economy at the same time for folks to enjoy a Memorial Day weekend, but more than that, to begin to get back to work and to engage in our communities and our economy in a way that is closer to what we’ve been used to. We won’t go back. It’s not back to normal. It’s not back to work as usual. It’s back to work with a change, but it’s a change that Tennesseeans have incredibly embraced. Because of that, our state is one of the few that is able to take the steps and loosen the restrictions that we have and move forward with hope into the days ahead. So, we hope that you have a blessed holiday weekend. Thank you for being here.