No surprise: Republicans, Democrats differ on economic reopening

By , Daily Memphian Updated: April 20, 2020 4:00 AM CT | Published: April 20, 2020 4:00 AM CT

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Tennessee’s Republican leaders are fully behind Gov. Bill Lee’s plans to reboot the economy in May, but as is typical in the state’s political scene, Democrats differ, saying they’re leery about causing a COVID-19 surge if the state jumps too soon.

Even Lee admits the state runs the risk of causing a virus surge when he ends a “safer at home” order April 30 in advance of a phased business reopening. But most agree with the governor that aggressive testing will be a vital part of any plan the state undertakes.

The governor is likely to follow the lead of President Donald Trump and allow nonessential businesses to open possibly starting in regions with lower numbers of cases. That means Shelby and Davidson counties, which have the highest numbers in the state, could languish. And it’s unclear whether urban mayors will follow anyway, since they instituted stiffer rules much earlier than Lee.

Lee: Reopening state’s economy could mirror gradual federal approach

AFL-CIO criticizes makeup of governor’s Economic Recovery Group

A White House proposal for states calls for a 14-day downward trajectory of COVID-19 cases with robust testing programs, especially for health care workers, and the ability to treat all patients without crisis care.

<strong>Kevin Vaughan</strong>

Kevin Vaughan

For Republican state Rep. Kevin Vaughan of Collierville, though, the amount of information available for making such a monumental decision is minimal at best. Other than positive cases, hospitalizations and deaths, the state hasn’t produced much else than the disease’s impact on age ranges and racial groups, though many believe the latter at least helps determine the disparity of the COVID-19 impact.

The state Department of Health isn’t making information about nursing home fatalities available, and ages and contributing factors of those reported to have died from the disease have not been released to the public.

Complicating matters, Tennessee went from a disastrous outlook in early April to one in which state leaders said just a few days later they were starting to flatten the curve and could handle a surge of hospital patients.

Leaders are also looking at different models to predict the peaks and valleys of the pandemic.

“We’re trying to base policy decisions on an imperfect science experiment,” Vaughan said.

For Vaughan, nevertheless, reopening the economy would mean allowing all occupations to go back to work. He believes businesses and people have learned to behave responsibly during the crisis, and he contends the marketplace will dictate which businesses survive. But Vaughan contends the government is not responsible for “preserving people’s health.”

“If you go to a barber shop and they’ve got the place packed out with people, I’m not going in there,” he said. “If it’s me and my barber, and he’s cutting me with some PPE on, I’m down with that.”

Personal protective equipment is likely to become part of business and industry protocol, and legislative leaders say the state and nation have learned in the past month that nobody can ever have too many masks, gloves and bottles of hand sanitizer in storage.

<strong>William Lamberth</strong>

William Lamberth

House Majority Leader William Lamberth, who will serve on the governor’s Economic Recovery Group, says May is “absolutely” the right time to start reopening the economy, first “responsibly and methodically” allowing shutdown business to restart with a safe environment for customers based on state-issued guidelines. He points out hospitals and medical providers are much more prepared to handle a surge of patients than a month ago. Three weeks ago, the state was expected to be 700 hospital beds short, but now it has 34% of its capacity open for a COVID surge.

Lee initially signed an executive order March 22 limiting social gatherings of 10 or more people and calling for nonessential businesses to use alternative operating plans. It wasn’t until April 2 that he issued a “shelter at home” order and shutdown for nonessential businesses, which were already closed or barely operating.

That came after a group of physicians statewide implored him to follow the lead of several other states and make people stay home except for essential needs such as work or trips to the grocery store and pharmacies, though recreational opportunities were allowed too.

“We flattened the curve by waiting ’til it was the right time to close down aspects of the economy, and it worked. I mean, it has absolutely saved lives,” Lamberth said. “And the timetable we’ve set now to reopen the economy is also very aggressive, and it’s, quite frankly, earlier than what some other states have done. But when you look at the data, which is what has to drive this, we have flattened the curve.”

Based on that, Lamberth said there is no reason not to start talking about how to reopen the economy and return to a “true free market economy” in which businesses and people can be “self-sufficient.”

Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson, whose own business, Takl, closed up shop, is hearing from constituents, including some who question the constitutionality of the governor’s orders, and he wants to jump-start the economy as soon as possible.

“People are getting antsy and they’re ready to get going again -- obviously, when we can do it safely,” Johnson said.

The Franklin Republican, who will serve on the governor’s reopening committee, predicted the group will look at businesses ordered to close and try to figure out which ones can operate without endangering customers.

For instance, restaurants might need to keep tables 6 to 10 feet apart, and barber shops and hair salons might be required to operate with personal protective equipment, he said.

Johnson also wants to reboot elective procedures at hospitals and allow dentist offices to reopen and start taking care of people’s teeth.

Hospitals were ordered to stop elective surgeries to make sure the state had enough bed capacity, and dentists were put on notice to close up shop and donate their masks and gloves at National Guard armories when the state was running low on protective equipment.

“When you say elective, a knee replacement might be elective, but it’s also pretty badly needed for the person who needs a new knee,” Johnson said.

In fact, hospitals across the state have been putting personnel on furlough during the crisis because they don’t have enough business without usual surgeries such as colonoscopies and knee work. About 35% of the state’s hospital beds remain available, and the governor’s Unified Command is holding off on plans to turn places such as the Nashville’s Music City Center into an emergency hospital.

Dems raise questions

But while Lee supporters are backing the governor’s plan, Democrats such as state Reps. Dwayne Thompson and Jesse Chism aren’t so sure. They understand the importance of jump-starting the economy, but they worry it could rekindle the disease.

“If we do this too soon, then we risk making this pandemic that much worse in Tennessee, which in the long run will actually hurt the economy more than if we wait a little bit longer to make sure we have a more safe situation,” said Thompson, of Cordova.

Besides being a transportation hub for the nation, Memphis and Shelby County could be affected by the daily influx of people from bordering Mississippi and Arkansas, which haven’t adopted restrictions as tough as Tennessee’s, Thompson pointed out.

Thompson argues that Tennessee would be in a better situation if Lee and the Republican-controlled Legislature had agreed to expand Medicaid to hundreds of thousands of uninsured residents. A waiver request by the state is on hold with the federal government, though Lee said last week he’s been told Tennessee will receive funds through the $2.2 trillion CARES Act to cover uninsured people with COVID-19 illnesses.

Chism, a first-term representative from Memphis, believes the restart is “premature,” especially with Shelby County reporting new cases daily. He says early June would be a better starting time, as long as federal assistance can prop up people who lose jobs.

Refusing to send people back to work could send the state back to the “dark ages,” Chism said, but spreading the disease and causing more deaths could cause similar damage, if not more.

Shelby County saw 108 more cases April 17, its third-highest daily increase since the pandemic struck in early March. Those pushed its total to 1,616 with 35 deaths, three more than were reported Thursday, April 16.

City and county officials tracking the virus believe it will peak between mid-May and early June.

A COVID-19 model put together by the Institute for Health Metrics at the University of Washington shows Tennessee deaths per day peaked at 15 April 14, and it predicts a mid-May return to zero.

A Vanderbilt University model, which is based on data collected on state cases, shows a mid-May peak under aggressive testing and contact tracing guidelines and a mid-June peak under the status quo.

Sounding the alarm

State Rep. G.A. Hardaway, a Memphis Democrat who was one of the first lawmakers to predict a pandemic would hit Tennessee hard, believes the state needs to put together a strategy focusing on housing, health, education and economics, all of which will depend on the others.

<strong>G.A. Hardaway</strong>

G.A. Hardaway

Hardaway, who wore a mask on the final day of legislative work before the General Assembly recessed until June, is especially concerned about the disparate impact of the disease on the African American population, which has had 21% of the cases statewide compared to 48% for white people. Others are multi-racial or information on race is pending.

The Black Caucus of Tennessee Legislators, which he chairs, is monitoring the impact of COVID-19 on African Americans.

Hardaway said he spoke last week with Shelby County judges who are worried as soon as the Supreme Court’s order is lifted to reopen courts, they’ll have a “rush” on evictions and foreclosures.

“We need to be prepared to give some guidance to the Supreme Court. They need to be a part of this so we don’t have that breakdown,” Hardaway said. “We’ve got folks that we’re talking about sending to work, and they’re not sure if they’re gonna have a home when they come back.”

Memphis is reportedly running into a situation where it has more tests than people are taking, and the governor announced last week anyone who wants to take a COVID-19 test can do so free of charge, even if they don’t exhibit symptoms such as a fever or bad cough. Testing sites were also to pop up statewide in rural counties over the next two weekends.

Still, Hardaway contends the state needs to get a better handle on widespread testing and a rapid turnaround. Without that technology, a workplace can’t tell people whether they’re too sick to be on the job or to enter a store.

A system also is needed with stricter protocol to test health care workers, people in home health and long-term care for seniors.

All law enforcement and first responders should go through testing to establish a baseline for benefits and to confirm they’re not passing the disease on to others, Hardaway added.

“We don’t need another hot spot popping up where we lose 40 to 50 seniors out of a nursing facility or out of assisted living or senior living facilities,” he said.

Be prepared to go back home

Beverly Robertson, president and CEO of the Greater Memphis Chamber of Commerce, points out the answer “will not be one-size-fits-all.”

Nor will it be like “turning on a light switch,” said Robertson, who will serve on the governor’s committee.

“We will move out of collectively social distancing in a controlled and careful series of steps that may happen over an extended period of time depending on how well our region is able to continue to contain the disease,” she said in response to questions.

Social distancing and increased sanitation could be in place for a while, and requirements for personal protective equipment in the workplace could be put in place.

Shelby County might even need to prepare, Robertson said, “for the reality” of an occasional return to “mitigation efforts” for short periods of time in case the disease flares up.

The Chamber of Commerce is offering resources and tools to businesses to minimize the impact of the crisis:

  • A Business Resources Page is available at The Chamber provides guidance and best practices for businesses on how they can best reopen safely as soon as guidelines are available.
  • It launched the Open 901 Business Directory, which offers a free listing and promotion of area businesses who remain open with modified hours or special offers.
  • An Immediate Jobs Opening Page is available and updated in real time to share job opportunities with community.
  • The Chamber is offering a free Lunch in the Know webinar series to local businesses. To date, it has held more than 20 free webinars and conference calls to help local businesses learn about financial resources, to hear advice from legal professionals and to help them prepare their businesses to transition to remote work when possible.


Kevin Vaughan William Lamberth Jack Johnson Dwayne Thompson Jesse Chism G.A. Hardaway Beverly Robertson
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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