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VOL. 44 | NO. 12 | Friday, March 20, 2020

Lee working to tweak open meeting rules amid virus outbreak

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NASHVILLE (AP) — Gov. Bill Lee announced Friday that his administration is working on allowing local officials to meet electronically, rather than in person, to mitigate the risk of spreading the new coronavirus.

"We need to provide open government and at the same time provide logistics for these governments to meet in the midst of this crisis so they don't gather together in groups that create a public health hazard," Lee told reporters.

Lee didn't reveal specifics about what exactly his team was considering regarding open meeting exemptions, but said he would soon release an executive order once everything had been fleshed out.

The Republican governor's administration has been forced to step in and find a way to help local governments meet safely amid a global pandemic after the GOP-dominated Statehouse failed to do so the day before temporarily recessing Thursday.

Lawmakers had spent the majority of this week scrambling to approve a drastically scaled-back spending plan for the upcoming fiscal year so they could recess until June 1.

While members advanced a handful of other non-budget measures deemed "mission critical," disagreements swirled around how much tweaking the open meeting law was needed to help cities and counties meet electronically.

Multiple versions surfaced, but ultimately, the House and Senate could not find a compromise.

Specifically, the Senate's version included restricted local officials from conferencing in electronically for essential business that could not be "reasonably delayed." The House didn't contain such limits.

Additionally, the Senate version required a governor-declared state of emergency to be in place if the public was not going to be given the option of attending. The House left that requirement out.

"Note to local officials in (Tennessee): we will be looking to see if there are statutory or administrative alternatives to allow safe conduct of meetings with transparency and public access," said Sen. Jeff Yarbro, a Democrat from Nashville, in a tweet on Thursday. "Sorry it didn't get done tonight."

Lee has already issued several COVID-19 related executive orders targeting relief to small business and relaxing a wide-range of regulations in order to speed up emergency response to those affected by the virus.

On Friday, Lee said his daughter was among those workers who lost their job in a restaurant that has closed. But he focused on the example of her two coworkers, a married couple with four children, who lost their jobs. He said the possibility of mandating businesses to close, which he has not required statewide so far, means eliminating paychecks, so he's trying to strike a balance during the ongoing health crisis.

"I believe to the degree that we can curb behavior and change behavior and find responsible behavior taking place across our state, to the degree that we can do that without mandates, it's better for everyone," Lee said.

Meanwhile, as the number of confirmed cases jump across the state, cities like Nashville and Memphis have limited restaurants to take-out orders, drive-thru service, curbside pickup, and delivery service. Most have ordered gyms to close.

Lee has held off from enforcing any statewide mandates, but said his administration is starting up an economic task force to discuss ways to help reeling businesses and workers. He says he's seeking guidance from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services about possibly using Medicaid to cover uninsured people's treatment for the coronavirus.

For most people, the coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For people with existing health problems and older adults, it can cause more severe illness requiring hospitalization at a time when beds and supplies are scarce.

The vast majority of people recover from the new virus. According to the World Health Organization, people with mild illness recover in about two weeks, while those with more severe illness may take three to six weeks to recover.

Tennessee has more than 260 confirmed cases as of Friday.

Shelby County Health Department Director Alisa Haushalter said Friday that there are 30 confirmed cases, up from 10 the day before. Cases have been spread by travelers, and in social groups and in the workplace, she said.

Shelby County Schools Superintendent Joris Ray said food preparations and community-wide food distribution have been suspended indefinitely in response to the rising number of cases, as well as a central nutrition services employee testing positive for the virus.

Ray said the district has begun working to identify people the employee had been in contact with. In the interim, he asked for the help from the community, including food pantries, to feed children while schools are closed.

Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland said Friday that a Memphis Police Department employee has tested positive for the virus.

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Correspondent Adrian Sainz contributed to this report from Memphis.

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The Associated Press receives support for health and science coverage from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute's Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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Follow AP coverage of the virus outbreak at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak.

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