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Tennessee lawmakers eye quick finish amid virus restrictions

March 18, 2020 GMT
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Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, right, answers questions concerning the state's response to the coronavirus Monday, March 16, 2020, in Nashville, Tenn. Lee has asked all schools in Tennessee to close by the end of the week due to coronavirus spreading across the state. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
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Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, right, answers questions concerning the state's response to the coronavirus Monday, March 16, 2020, in Nashville, Tenn. Lee has asked all schools in Tennessee to close by the end of the week due to coronavirus spreading across the state. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Gov. Bill Lee announced Tuesday that his administration was working to boost benefits and ease access for Tennesseans impacted by the new coronavirus outbreak, acknowledging an economic downturn was likely on the horizon.

“We certainly never wanted this day to come and we didn’t know it would come this severely, but we’re prepared in this state in ways many other states are not,” Lee told reporters during a daily briefing on the outbreak.

According to Lee, the state plans on providing cash assistance with help of block grant federal funds. Just months prior, the Department of Health and Human Services had faced criticism for its unusually large reserves of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families dollars.

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Lee said Tuesday that the reserve — as well as the state’s other rainy day funds — will likely help provide more assistance as the state grapples with the affects of the outbreak. Tennessee had more than 70 confirmed cases as of Tuesday, most of them in Middle Tennessee.

One issue already looming are the state’s unemployment claims, which tripled over the past seven days compared to the previous week.

Two of those testing positive for the virus were state employees, according to an email sent by the Department of Human Resources. Information about where the state employees worked was not provided, but the email noted that the “individuals are in good condition and isolated to prevent the spread of infection to others.”

According to the Department of Labor and Workforce Development, more than 6,000 claims were filed between March 8 and March 16. Just a little over 2,000 claims were processed between March 1 and March 7. It’s unknown, however, how many of those claims were due directly to the outbreak.

Lee said the agency is working with the federal government to remove certain job search requirements in order to receive unemployment benefits.

The agency also has asked the federal government how to proceed with “possible special rules” for unemployment insurance claims filed by Tennesseans who are sick or quarantined with the coronavirus.

Also Tuesday, Tennessee lawmakers acknowledged they were shirking federal health recommendations on the new coronavirus by sitting in close quarters as they conducted business Tuesday.

The Republican leadership has said it’s focusing on “mission critical” legislation, including constitutionally required budget duties, so lawmakers can disperse as the virus spreads. The leadership wants lawmakers to come back as soon as June 1 to finish approving other legislative issues.

Yet they also drew questions about whether they were staying focused on only the most necessary legislation.

A Senate committee became tied up in election-related bills and other legislation, including proposed changes to try to rework voter registration restrictions passed last year and since blocked by a federal court. They will likely remain blocked through the November election due to the February 2021 trial date. That bill’s debate will continue in committee Wednesday.

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“I think it goes against the spirit of the way that we are gathered here this week — to focus on that which is mission critical, to focus on that which is not partisan and contentious — to raise this issue in this setting today,” said Democratic Senate Minority Leader Jeff Yarbro.

In response, GOP bill sponsor Sen. Ed Jackson said the issue was urgent “because we need to do this for our next election and make that things are done properly.”

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. 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.

Separately, the Tennessee Department of Education is seeking a one-year waiver from the federal government to “exclude assessments” for the 2019-2020 school year, according to the waiver provided by the agency.

The waiver also includes requests to ease rules surrounding “chronic absenteeism.”

The department’s request was submitted Monday just hours after Lee asked all schools in Tennessee to close for at least the end of the month.

The education agency argues that the waiver is needed not only because of the increasing number of virus cases being confirmed throughout Tennessee, but also pointed to the recent deadly tornadoes that killed 25 people earlier this month and destroyed thousands of buildings, including school structures.

“Last week alone, schools serving over 50% of the state’s 973,659 students have suspended classes,” wrote Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn in her letter to the U.S. Department of Education.

As of Tuesday, the federal government had not responded.

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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.