This is a summary of Gov. Bill Lee’s COVID-19 press conference from Sept. 17. Officials spoke about visitations at nursing homes and a refusal to give Metro Nashville virus relief funds.
We are resuming a requirement that people drawing unemployment benefits search for jobs.
Our unemployment rate is 8.5 percent, higher than the national average.
There are 200,000 jobs listed online at jobs4tn.gov. The Tennessee Talent Exchange matches retail and grocery companies with hospitality workers who lost their jobs.
Forty counties are offering apprenticeship programs to give on-the-job training to people seeking new skills.
Sept. 25 is the deadline for businesses to apply for a relief fund. We set aside $300 million for this.
Dr. Lisa Piercey, Health Department:
We have one of the lowest death rates in the nation for nursing homes during the pandemic. We will allow visits in a safe manner. There are three new initiatives. First, we are expanding visitation options.
We already allow essential visits. Starting Oct. 1, we will allow visits for sites that have had no new cases in 14 days. This will be outdoor or limited indoor visits. There will be rules that include the use of masks. Visitors may have to be tested.
If there are no new cases for 28 days, the site can offer an essential caregiver program. This is for people to visit frequently to help residents with daily care tasks like feeding.
If a site has new cases, these rules may be suspended.
Following CMS guidelines, we are loosening restrictions for residents inside the sites, including communal dining and hairdresser visits.
We are forming a covid task force to help set policies for long-term care facilities. They will monitor the effectiveness of the new visitation rules.
Penny Schwinn, Education Department:
Five districts are online only. Ninety percent of districts are submitting information. Cases are down in schools.
Graduation rates come out this week for the past year. The rate has increased over the past decade, but dipped this past year largely due to closures. We did see gains: 69 districts improved their rates, 58 graduated 95 percent or more of seniors, 37 schools had graduation rates of 100 percent, and six districts improved by 5 percentage points or more.
Lee: I believe we are a steward of money coming to the state. My approach has been to lift restrictions on businesses s soon as possible, to use best health practices to mitigate the spread, to stimulate the economy. We have used data to make decisions.
Lee: There were so many things we did not know in the beginning, and I had a responsibility to protect lives based on limited information. As knowledge grew, I believe we had to open businesses while protecting nursing homes. I feel good about those decisions.
Q: Revenue numbers were higher than projections called for. What does that mean for budget cuts, especially teacher pay raises?
Lee: There are many unknowns about the budget and the future. We had billions of dollars come in from federal funds. As those funds end, that will have an impact on revenues in the state. Unemployment payments will stop and will affect spending by the unemployed. It is too early to project what the economy will look like but projections show we will struggle.
Q: The budget has money for employee bailouts. Have you used that?
Lee: I am not sure what you mean.
Q: It was an offer to buyout employees.
Lee: For state employees. We will propose that budget to the Legislature on how we can eliminate unfilled positions as part of budget reductions.
Q: Nashville Mayor John Cooper asked you for $80 million for relief. Will you help him?
Lee: I replied to him today. Our strategy has been to not raise taxes and cut spending and invest in businesses that suffered. It has been to mitigate the virus spread but limit restrictions on businesses and lift those when we felt those inhibited the growth of the economy and did not stop the spread. That has not been the approach in Metro. I have a responsibility as governor to 95 counties. More funding for one county takes away from all the other counties, and Metro received more per capita got than any other county in the pandemic. That is why I told him No.
Q: The Education Department dashboard does not have some districts giving a school-by-school breakdown, including Williamson.
Schwinn: This is our second week of data entry, and superintendents have a lot going on. Ninety percent of districts gave district-level data. They are talking about school-level. Those are local decisions.
Q: You said we would have school-level data.
Schwinn: I think 90 percent is good buy-in. We are one of two states that have a dashboard.
Q: If you are a parent in one of the 10 percent, that is not enough. How do you make sure they are not kept in the dark?
Schwinn: As a parent, I would want to know it and I would ask my district. Parents are becoming engaged in reopenings.
Q: In your letter to Cooper, you mentioned how he spent federal virus funds. Would you call that mismanagement? Your letter did not specifically say No to Cooper.
Lee: I am not going to fund the request as asked. I asked a number of questions on how they spent the funds. I suspect we will meet. This is about stewardship and responsibly spending taxpayer dollars. We should cut budgets and not raise taxes and live within our means. We set aside $300 million for business recovery; that would be a priority if I operated in a metro government. They got millions and were one of a few counties that got designated funds from the federal government.
Q: Cooper had some of the most restrictive rules on businesses. Should he lift all the current restrictions on bars and restaurants?
Lee: We made a commitment early to lift restrictions as soon as possible without affecting health. We have to get our economy moving forward. They are the least rapidly recovering metro area in the United States. That means the strategy … is not an effective one.
Q: Since he has not done that, will you overrule the local health department?
Lee: I have been clear on the power of local authority, whether is mask requirements or the economy. I will not invest further into what I think is not a good strategy.
Q: Two weeks ago, the Maury County Fair had thousands attend with social distancing signs but no enforcement. Do events like these make you rethink the approach to leaving mask mandates up to county mayors?
Lee: Mayors have an obligation to be responsible in protecting people. You give local elected officials authority. I have concerns anytime we have events that might create a spread. I would be interested in a case count from that event.
Q: Are there any events that would merit the state’s intervention?
Lee: Public health officials can intervene in any cases that merit it. This is an issue of making personal decisions and being personally responsible.
Q: Have you spoken to Ben Shapiro since he said he was moving to Nashville?
Q: There have been two new photos of you not wearing a mask: at a parade and at a restaurant with your arms around the owner underneath signs saying wear a mask and social distance. Can you do a better job modeling behavior?
Lee: I do a good job. Tennesseans see me in a mask every day. They watch what we say and what we do. I think it’s important. I think it is serious, but you have an obligation. I follow that obligation. There are circumstances when I don’t wear mask because I don’t feel at risk. When I don’t feel safe, I wear a mask. I don’t know which restaurant this is, but I felt safe in that restaurant environment.
Q: You say you will not issue mask mandates, but will you punish county mayors?
Lee: I want to work with the Metro mayor. I don’t think you punish; you just make decisions and you encourage.
Q: Your ECD commissioner said you sent the video to the Chinese investment event. Considering human rights abuses and that they allegedly sent us the pandemic, is this appropriate?
Lee: You should have a clear vetting process for any international company you talk to about coming to Tennessee. Secretary Pompeo at an event talked about understanding who you are working with and not working with companies connected to the Communist government. That is why we have a strict policy for international companies and who they are connected to.
Q: The Shelby County schools district is not allowing fall contact sports. This puts them at odds with other districts. Are they overreacting?
Lee: I think kids should be in a classroom before they are on a football field. I worked hard to get kids in classes so they could be in activities.
Q: You talked about not raising taxes in a pandemic, but you supported an online tax.
Lee: That is levied but not recovered. Sales tax is an ongoing statute. Collecting it online is a matter of collecting a tax that is due but not collected.