Sen. Paul Rose, other state leaders discuss reopening

By , Special to the Daily Memphian Updated: April 29, 2020 10:53 AM CT | Published: April 29, 2020 9:53 AM CT

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Hundreds of concerned Tennessee citizens dialed in on Tuesday for a tele-town hall meeting led by Tennessee Sen. Paul Rose and a panel of industry leaders, who all expressed caution about a reopening of the state economy.

With news that many businesses in other parts of the state will be allowed to reopen this week, Rose said his phone rings throughout the day from “folks that think we’re opening too soon.”

“I get just as many calls from people that think we should’ve opened a long time ago and even a few that think we never should’ve closed anything,” Rose said. “Like our president and governor are doing, we’re looking at the data. In my opinion, I think we’re doing the right thing. We’re trusting our health care professionals.”

Tennessee to reopen restaurants and retail stores with $5B loss in GDP projected

The Tennessee Department of Health reports a steady decline in COVID-19 illness since March 25.

“As the economy begins to reopen, it is important that we keep up our guard,” said Dr. Shavetta Conner, West Tennessee regional medical director for the Tennessee Department of Health. “The virus is highly infectious. It is not going to disappear quickly. We need to remain mindful of the things that have made a difference – social distancing work, keeping your hands clean work. Staying home when you’re not well makes a difference.”

She assured listeners that the Tennessee Department of Health is completely focused on the virus.

“The state has been given quite a bit of autonomy to regulate itself relative to the pandemic, and that’s been very good,” said Ryan King, Tennessee Chamber of Commerce associate vice president of government affairs. “Gov. (Bill) Lee has taken several proactive steps to curb growth.”

King expects another round of federal funding to assist businesses to be approved in early May, with news that the most recent round of funding passed April 23 – an additional $310 billion for the Paycheck Protection Plan – is going to be exhausted by later this week or next week.

As a result of the pandemic, Tennesseans filed 412,895 unemployment claims with the Department of Labor and Workforce Development between March 1 and April 18. In total, about 15% of Tennessee workers have filed unemployment.

“Our primary and almost singular focus here for the last few weeks has been on the unemployment insurance side and taking the guidance from the rules from the federal government, translating those into action, and paying out and determining who’s eligible for unemployment insurance,” said Jeff McCord, commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development.

Early this week, McCord’s department distributed benefits to a quarter of a million people. Last week it began dispersing benefits to people eligible for pandemic assistance, including sole proprietors and 1099 workers. To handle the increased load of claimants, he and his team have had to rebuild existing systems.

In March, Tennessee retailers lost an estimated $870 million in net sales, with restaurant sales dropping approximately $408 million year over year, hotel and accommodation sales dropping $177 million, motor vehicle-related sales dropping $208 million, and entertainment and recreation sales dropping $64 million.

As part of Gov. Lee’s “Tennessee Pledge” reopening plan, the majority of businesses in 89 Tennessee counties are allowed to reopen on May 1. Retail stores can open at 50% capacity on Wednesday, April 29, while restaurants were able to open at 50% capacity on Monday.

“While we definitely recognize that businesses are struggling … rolling out things gradually is important so we know what’s happening and can make adjustments,” said Wisty Pender, director of the Business Enterprise Resource Office of the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development.

Lee’s administration will work with Shelby, Madison, Davidson, Hamilton, Knox and Sullivan counties and their health departments as they plan their own reopen strategies.

“The coronavirus pandemic has affected all of us in ways that we never, ever have imagined,” said Rose, who praised Tennesseans for practicing social distancing since last month. “We’re not out of this yet, but it does seem that the curve is flattening and we’re seeing a reduction in the number of cases being reported.”

He noted the state currently has $1.1 billion in its rainy-day fund, with plans to drop another $400 million into it on July 1, bringing it to $1.5 billion.

“That’s the most we have ever had in that fund, and who would’ve ever thought that we have got to look seriously at not only a reduced budget that we passed as we departed in March, but also further reductions that are most likely going to be required if we go back into session on June 1.”

Tennessee’s gross domestic product is projected to decline $5 billion this year as a result of closures and joblessness related to the pandemic, assuming businesses begin to reopen on May 1.

COVID-19 in Memphis and Shelby County: April

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Paul Rose

Michael Waddell

Michael Waddell is a native Memphian with more than 20 years of professional writing and editorial experience, working most recently with The Daily News and High Ground News.


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