State’s COVID-19 response reflecting desperation of some

By Updated: April 20, 2020 6:06 PM CT | Published: April 20, 2020 1:30 PM CT

COVID-related protests in Tennessee and nationally are drawing mixed reviews from lawmakers as Americans raise a ruckus that their constitutional rights are being trampled to protect their health.

About 200 people rallied at the State Capitol Sunday, April 19, and more protests were expected Monday. Many challenged the governor’s decision to close certain businesses, such as restaurants and bars, while others claim the state is overstepping its right to protect people’s health.

State Rep. Antonio Parkinson, a Memphis Democrat, calls the rallies playing across the country “troublesome” and likely the result of an organized effort. But he said some people, most of them on the lower end of the economic scale, “feel like the state has put them in a position of desperation because of the lack of support.”

Parkinson made the comments as the state’s JOBS4TN website went down Monday, making it unavailable for the public to check on claims and file them until 2:30 p.m. while the state processed claims.


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The Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development has received 324,000 new unemployment claims since March 16. Last week it distributed 170,000 claims for payment with more than $160 million sent to people, including $600 to those filing claims through the federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation program. The unemployment trust fund has $1.2 billion.

The state is still putting in place the system for 1099 filers and sole proprietors, according to department spokesman Chris Cannon.

The site went down Monday for four hours because a vendor wasn’t able to handle the task before the start of the business day. New equipment is to be installed this week to increase capacity, and using a staggered certification schedule, the system should be able to handle the demand better, Cannon said.

An analysis by Volusion found about 700,000 Tennesseans in retail trade, leisure and hospitality industries, 21.9% of the working population, have been affected by the pandemic.

With record numbers of people filing claims, traditional unemployment claims are starting to come in, but money for the self-employed and independent contractors is behind those. And Parkinson contends small business loans got gobbled up by the federal government’s “rich friends.”

<strong>Antonio Parkinson</strong>

Antonio Parkinson

“A lot of people want to go back to work, even at the risk of their own lives, because they’re not getting the support from the state so they can stay in until this thing blows over,” Parkinson said.

The state’s poorest people are in an odd confrontation, some calling for the governor to open up the economy and others saying keep it closed because they are getting payments, he said.

Mayors in Shelby and Davidson counties put more stringent rules in place before the governor made an executive order requiring restaurants to close statewide except for curbside, drive-through and delivery services.

Asked about constitutional issues Monday, Lee said, “What’s most important is that the shutdowns occurred in order to save people’s lives, and Tennesseans have done what Tennesseans needed to do, and that was to put in place the measures and to follow those measures to do just what was necessary to stop the spread of a deadly virus, and they’ve done that.”

State Rep. Tom Leatherwood, who was helping his wife clean out her first-grade classroom at Donelson Elementary School in Arlington Schools Monday, said he was glad to hear about peaceful protests at the Capitol. Schools have been canceled for the academic year.

<strong>Tom Leatherwood</strong>

Tom Leatherwood

“I understand people being concerned with the potential loss of liberty,” said Leatherwood, an Arlington Republican.

He believes Gov. Bill Lee and President Donald Trump have handled the coronavirus by erring on the side of caution.

Yet, he said, “It’s reassuring to see some of the spirit our country was founded on is alive and well out there and there is a limit to what the government can do before people start standing up and taking notice.”

House Speaker Cameron Sexton pointed out people have the right to “peacefully assemble” and express views.”

“As we have worked to flatten the virus curve, and as we have maintained our health capacity, it is time to safely and swiftly reopen our economy,” said Sexton, a Crossville Republican. “As we look at our options to safely reopen the economy, we should have our licensing, regulatory and professional boards and their members make recommendations for safe operation of businesses. These groups have the best understanding of the unique needs of businesses and their customers.”

Lee’s “safer at home” order is set to run out April 30, and he is planning to reopen the economy in phases. An Economic Reopening Group was to start work this week.

Leatherwood predicts “strong guidelines” will be placed on businesses to keep the virus from flaring up now that the state’s curve is “flattening” and hospital beds and ventilators are available to handle a surge.


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Tennessee has more than 7,000 cases and 148 deaths, with nearly 1,780 cases in Shelby County and more than 1,600 in Davidson County. Nearly 3,100 of the state’s cases are clustered in the six-county region in and around Nashville.

The state has about 35% of its hospital beds and intensive care unit beds available. State officials believe plenty of ventilators are open too.

<strong>Kevin Vaughan</strong>

Kevin Vaughan

State Rep. Kevin Vaughan, a Collierville Republican, leans toward the idea government ought to focus on uniform COVID-19 testing protocol and better response times and then let people’s personal behavior dictate the rest.

“If our standard of care is protecting people’s health, as opposed to saving people’s lives, we’re going to be experiencing government intrusion that far exceeds what a lot of people are comfortable with,” Vaughan said.

Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson, who is serving on the governor’s Economic Recovery Group, concedes he has gotten calls from people concerned the government is stepping on constitutional rights by forcing businesses deemed nonessential to close during the pandemic. He expects a “healthy” discussion when the crisis ends on state and federal response levels.

“It’s very easy to armchair, but I know our governor very well, and I have full faith and confidence in him and the people around him to walk that tightrope of doing everything we can to mitigate the pandemic by issuing temporary restrictions on people without infringing on their constitutional rights,” said Johnson, a Franklin Republican.

That said, Johnson believes it is time to start opening up the economy.

House Majority Leader William Lamberth takes a similar view while noting a breakout at just one Sumner County nursing home led to 20 deaths.

“This is a deadly disease. And in Tennessee we have recognized the fact that it is an absolute deadly plague upon our society. But we have tried to, as we do in many things, keep the amount of government intrusion into folks’ personal daily lives at a very minimum,” he said.

<strong>London Lamar</strong>

London Lamar

House Minority Leader Karen Camper and state Rep. London Lamar, both Memphis Democrats, agree they want businesses to reopen so people can go back to work but with a measured approach to rebooting the economy.

“Our top priority has to remain the health and safety of all Tennesseans. We have just seen a concerning number of increases in COVID-19 cases in both Nashville and Memphis,” Camper said.

Every step should be taken to protect people, including increased testing and contact tracing and possibly extending the “safer at home” order while figuring out how to reopen the state “safely,” Camper said.

Lamar was blunt, calling the protests at the Capitol “irresponsible.”

“These are human lives we are debating here,” Lamar said. “I want to encourage the government and the administration to reopen when the data shows we have significantly reduced the number of cases in conjunction with having enough tests for every citizen, and hospitals and doctors have the adequate PPE and medical devices such as ventilators.” 

Topics

Antonio Parkinson Tom Leatherwood Jack Johnson William Lamberth Karen Camper London Lamar
Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard is a Nashville-based reporter with more than 30 years of journalism experience as a writer, editor and columnist covering the state Legislature and Tennessee politics for The Daily Memphian.


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