This is a summary of a press conference held by Gov. Bill Lee on Tuesday, June 23 on COVID-19, the end of the Legislative session, business assistance and race relations.
The Legislature passed an historic budget.
We are facing one of the greatest economic crises we have ever had.
This required us to shelve important initiatives we had hoped to do this year: literacy, teacher pay raises, mental health, trust fund investments. We expect to re-engage in the future.
We protected the life of the unborn: the vulnerable are worth fighting for
Our highest priority was to pass a balanced budget. We were successful, but the Legislature had unfished business, leaving many businesses unsettled. The failure to pass liability protection for businesses, churches and schools must be addressed to keep the economic recovery on track. I am evaluating the best way. I may give serious consideration to holding a special session. The sessions are reserved for extraordinary circumstances. I hope for productive discussions in the Legislature first; that’s needed for a successful, quick session.
Access to capital is important for companies: Relief is available by the Tennessee Business Relief program. This is relief for businesses that had economic losses from mandatory closure or significant downturn in revenues; those that pay sales tax or business tax and stopped or modified their operations due to executive order. You don’t have to apply, but make sure your information is up to date with the Department of Revenue, who determines eligibility. I believe payments will go out in early July.
Consumer confidence makes the economy thrive. Harvard ranks the states on economic recovery: Tennessee is No. 1 for restaurant and hotel spending, 2nd highest in the nation for apparel and general merch spending. In May, out of state travel was up 145 percent from April; hotel demand was up 54 percent from April to May.
I spent time with faith leaders, minority business leaders and law enforcement, especially on experiences I have not had, and moving forward. I took a trip to Memphis Friday and spoke to black pastors who are engaged in COVID-19 testing as part of Juneteenth celebrations. We are working with police on new policies. I met with black business owners on their challenges and how we can help them succeed.
Dr. Lisa Piercey, health commissioner:
We had 451 new cases yesterday, it is a modest but expected increase as people start moving about.
For the last 14 days, the average daily new cases were 615, vs. 453 in the previous 14 days.
Hot spots. A couple hours ago, in a meeting, we talked about making a hot spot plan. We did this in Hamilton and Sevier counties when they had increases. The most recent are: Wilson and Hamblen counties, and we will develop plans.
Hospitalizations and deaths remain stable during this time. COVID-19 has a pattern of 4.9 percent of all hospitalized patients statewide. Hospital capacity is quite stable. This morning ,24 percent inpatient beds are available, 75 percent ventilators are available. We believe this is due to a lower age range but we will watch this. Hospitals remain busy with typical things as they resume procedures.
There is a concern nationally and here in Tennessee: During the pandemic, people put off routine medical procedures and things like heart attacks and strokes and cancer diagnoses where they should have sought care. Hospitals have plenty of capacity.
Half of new cases are from an unknown source: patients don’t know who made them sick. They meet people who are sick but the patient doesn’t know it. This means when you move about, be safe.
Answering questions (Reporters did not have mics, so most of their questions were not audible over the video feed.):
The most productive thing is not to talk about protest tactics but the value of elevating the conversation around much needed issues like racial reconciliation…that’s what I will focus on. I want to work hard to focus on efforts that are going to be productive and bring people together and find solutions. Protests are a good thing and the First Amendment is a good thing.
We’re exploring all the options…the best way is through legislation. There may be other options, and we are exploring, but I hope for legislation.
Every time you have a conversation with a person who has a unique perspective, you learn new things.
Audible question: What actions are you taking with the speaker to get the legislature back?
Lee: Both chambers recognize this is an important issue. Both were working to accomplish the goal of having liability protection. I am allowing time for those conversations.
Every death is a serious issue to me. Chattanooga had a spike in cases. We talked with the county and city mayors. We developed a strategy.
Audible question: What is the strategy for Chattanooga?
Lee: We targeted the Hispanic population, which had cases go up. We are working with the health department to expand testing and provide innovative ways to get more people to test.
Piercey: At the start, there were 2-3 contacts per sick person; now, it is 8 or 9. We only trace active cases, not old ones. Those in institutions like prisons or nursing homes…they have their own embedded contact tracers. We have contracts with two, soon a third, agency to get contract tracers.
Lee: The importance of data changes as the pandemic moves. When we didn’t know much, there was data that was more important for decision making. The most important is death rate. Second is hospitalization numbers and health care capacity. Case count matters…number of tracers…age of patients…none of it is not important, but some are most important.
Audible question: Is there a certain death rate or hospitalization rate?
There are many levers that would happen with hospitalization long before you started other measures. We are at a different place than four months ago. People know and have a responsibility whether they go to a bar or wear a mask or wash their hands. We know what causes this, how it spreads, how we protect ourselves. That changes the responsibilities the government has to protect safeguards. We are protecting our nursing homes: seniors and long-term care are most at risk of death.
There was much we did not know two months ago. There were models showing a lot of potential deaths. We have data on the ground.
Taking money away from police and whether we are better off without them? I spoke to black leaders, none of whom told me to defund the police.
There have been dozens of protests and thousands of people in this state speaking out about injustices. I value those voices and hear them. There have been dozens and tens of thousands of protesters who would like to meet with me. What’s most productive to me is to meet with folks who can listen to the voices and engage in policy that will bring substantive change. I believe racial reconciliation is most important. Those are the heart of the matter and those are the conversations I want to engage in.
I have had specific conversations with law enforcement about specific reforms. We will say more about that in the next week or two. Some of them…Memphis chief and Shelby sheriff are black; black pastors; business owners. Owners talk about access to capital and banking. Black pastors talk about the role of the church.