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Capitol Closes to Visitors, Governor Recommends Churches and Schools Act With Caution

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Houses of worship should consider using televised services and other alternative means of serving congregants, and other gatherings of more than 250 people are discouraged, Governor Bill Lee's office said Friday. The recommendations were folded into an announcement about additional steps the state is taking to combat the spread of COVID-19.

The state Department of Public Health announced Friday afternoon the number of COVID-19 cases increased to 26, inclulding a new case in Jefferson County. This brings to eight the number of counties with confirmed cases. Davidson has the most so far, with ten people diagnosed.

Lee's office is leaving the decision to close schools up to local districts, in contrast with states such as Alabama and Ohio, which ordered blanket, statewide closings.

"The state will provide further support for districts pursuing this action but urge districts to consider the prevalence of confirmed cases of COVID-19 in their area," Gov. Lee's office said. "In partnership with districts, students who depend on school-provided meals will still receive this support, regardless of school closure."

Sevier County school will be closed until March 30 and McMinn County schools will be closed until March 28, officials announced Friday.

The recommendation to offer alternatives to in-person church services comes as the Christian world observes significant spring events, such as Lent. Friday afternoon, Diocese of Knoxville Bishop Richard Sticka said there were no immediate plans to cancel worship services at the diocese's 51 parishes and mission churches. But steps would be taken to emphasize practices recommended by medical professionals. Saturday and Sunday masses will be streamed from two websites: dioknox.org and shcathedral.org.

The state capitol in Nashville will close to the public until March 31. The Cordell Hull Building, which houses legislative offices, will limit access to lawmakers, their staffs, and reporters beginning Monday. This week, state lawmakers' reactions to COVID-19 split along party lines, with some Republicans downplaying the risk of continuing the General Assembly session and Democrats asking for more caution.

The General Assembly was off on Friday, and it was unclear as of press time whether lawmakers would return to work Monday morning. As of Friday night, committee meetings and floor sessions were still listed on the General Assembly's online calendar.

The Tennessee Department of Veterans Services suspended access to veterans homes for all visitors, vendors and volunteers, effective Friday evening. There are four veterans homes in the state, in Knoxville, Clarksville, Humboldt and Murfreesboro. No COVID-19 cases have been reported at those facilities. Visitation to all Tennessee Department of Correction facilities was suspended Thursday.