Gov. Lee closes Tenn. Capitol, halts state travel over coronavirus
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee on Friday halted all non-essential business travel for state employees, banned visitors and tours from the state Capitol and heavily discouraged groups of 250 or more from gathering.
The guidance is the latest development in Tennessee's handling of the spread of the new coronavirus.
“COVID-19 is an evolving situation but we urge vulnerable populations, including those over age 60 and with chronic medical conditions to limit participation in mass gatherings and to take extra precautions for personal well-being like increased hand-washing,” the Republican governor said in a statement.
Lee's administration has also advised school districts to “exercise discretion” when canceling school for K-12 students, but held off from mandating any closures as some other state's have already done.
The governor's office added that school-provided meals will still continue regardless of closures.
Along with the Capitol, top lawmakers have also agreed to close the state’s legislative office building to the public beginning Monday.
As of Friday, Tennessee had 26 confirmed cases of coronavirus. Ten cases in Davidson County, nine cases in Williamson County and two in Shelby County have been confirmed. Single cases have been found in Hamilton, Jefferson, Knox, Rutherford and Sullivan counties.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. The vast majority of people recover from the new virus.
Lee's order comes after Tennessee's highest court on Friday suspended all in-person judicial proceedings until the end of the month due to the spread of the new coronavirus.
The Supreme Court order applies to state and local courts, including appellate, trial, general session, juvenile and municipal courts.
“Each day across the State of Tennessee, thousands of people attend court proceedings in-person when they come to the courthouse as jurors, witnesses, litigants, or in another capacity," said Chief Justice Jeff Bivins in a statement. “Public spaces in courthouses tend to be small, tightly packed bench seats that provide the type of situations public health officials have encouraged people to avoid during the COVID-19 outbreak.”
Bivins noted that judges, court clerks and other essential constitutional functions will continue to proceed. Likewise, court proceedings by telephone, video, teleconference and email will continue to be allowed.
Bivins' decision also includes several exceptions ranging from emergency child custody orders, emergency mental health orders to COVID-19 public health emergency proceedings.
Other closures continued to ripple across the state on Friday.
The U.S. attorney’s office in Memphis said in a statement that all jury trials and jury selections in the Western District of Tennessee scheduled through March 27 are delayed until further notice.
Federal courts in the Eastern District of Tennessee, which includes Knoxville and Chattanooga, and the Middle District, which includes Nashville, have not changed normal operations, according to statements posted on their websites.
Meanwhile, Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke announced a state of emergency for the city Friday. The decision comes after Lee filed a statewide emergency declaration the day before.
With one confirmed case of COVID-19 in Chattanooga's Hamilton County, Berke's decision allows the city to take certain preventive actions. This includes canceling city-sponsored senior activities and suspending public access and activities at the city's youth centers and library branches.
In Nashville, the public library has also suspended its programming starting March 16 until April 16.
Also Friday, movie theater chain Malco said it is limiting seating in each auditorium to a maximum of 50% of capacity.
“This seating arrangement reduces crowded auditoriums, allowing for guests to practice healthy social distancing,” said Karen Melton, vice president and marketing director of the Memphis-based chain, in a statement. Malco has 35 locations in Tennessee, Mississippi, Arkansas, Missouri, Kentucky and Louisiana.
Department of Human Services Commissioner Danielle Barnes told lawmakers this week that her agency had asked the federal government to provide cash assistance to COVID-19 patients but had not received permission as of Friday.
“We do anticipate and we are preparing for an increase in customers in all of our programs across the entire state because we know businesses will close, schools will close and the loss of income associated with those closures,” Barnes said.
Dolly Parton’s East Tennessee theme park is delaying its season opening for two weeks. The theme park in Pigeon Forge announced Friday that it will not open to the public as planned on Saturday, but will open on March 28. The theme park had previously announced that a media day on Friday was also canceled.
Two of her dinner show restaurants, Dolly Parton’s Stampede and Pirate’s Voyage, will close starting on Monday.
“We have been following the coronavirus crisis very closely and based on developments within the last 24 hours and in consultation with health experts, we are going to delay our season opening until March 28,” Craig Ross, Dollywood president said in a statement. “Despite the delay in opening, we are committed to taking care of our hosts while the park remains closed.”
In Nashville, the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum closed Friday and will remain closed through March 31. The museum, which calls itself “the Smithsonian of country music,” is one of the Nashville's biggest tourist draws, bringing in a record 1.3 million visitors last year. Also to close will be Hatch Show Print, RCA Studio B and the museum’s CMA Theater.
Associated Press writers Kristin Hall in Nashville and Adrian Sainz in Memphis contributed to this report.
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