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Roundup: Smokies NP Off-Limits; Knoxville City Council Goes Online; OR Delcares Emergency

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Here are some of the major developments of Tuesday, March 24:

GSMNP closes to visitors

The nation’s most-visited national park is closing most of its property to visitors in an effort to help slow the spread of COVID-19.

In a statement issued Tuesday morning, Great Smoky Mountains National Park said it had already tried to limit traffic by closing visitor centers, restrooms, campgrounds and other facilities. But 30,000 people continued to come into the park daily, according to National Park Service estimates. Crowds tended to gather at popular spots, such as Laurel Falls, Cades Cove and Newfound Gap.

The park says all visitor entry points, including trails, will close at noon on Tuesday. The closure will last through at least April 6. Foothills Parkway and the Spur will remain open.

While the park is closed visitors can make a virtual visit using NPS webcams. Rangers will still be able to answer questions during business hours by phone or e-mail, GSMNP said. Staff will let the public and the press know when the park re-opens, or when any adjustments are made to the closure schedule.

Knoxville City Council meeting is still on, but not at City-County Building

Local governments are figuring out how to conduct routine business while not violating state public meeting laws or running afoul of recommendations for social distancing. The Knoxville City Council is going to give remote conferencing a try in tonight’s scheduled meeting.

A statement from the city Monday said the meeting would go on. Vice Mayor Gwen McKenzie determined electronic means would help the council conduct necessary business. Council members will participate remotely, using Zoom software.

“Reasonable efforts are being made to ensure live public access to this meeting,” the statement said. In the event of a technological problem, audio or video will be made available online “as soon as practical following the meeting.”

Knoxville Community Television will broadcast the meeting, scheduled for 6:00 p.m., as usual.

Oak Ridge declares state of emergency

Oak Ridge city council members approved a resolution Monday that declares a local state of emergency. The resolution allows city employees access to emergency leave if they have to miss work due to quarantine or a COVID-related exigency. The resolution also allows essential city employees to stay in local hotels to continue their work if necessary.

City leaders are keeping tabs with first responders and checking in with Methodist Hospital, especially with an eye toward available beds. Hospitals across East Tennessee have been working to increase capacity under the expectation of COVID cases that require serious medical attention.

Electric director Jack Suggs says he’s working with TVA to get the funding needed to suspend utility disconnections in the immediate future. That will help people who are going through financial turmoil from losing their service, but a press release noted that utility costs will still be counted up and bills will be due again once the emergency period has passed. The city plans to be flexible on repayment once the suspension is lifted.

The resolution lasts for seven days, but it gives Mayor Warren Gooch the power to extend its provisions if deemed necessary.

TVA moves from voluntary to mandatory “telework” this week

The Tennessee Valley Authority will require most employees to work from home, starting Wednesday. Exceptions include people involved in “mission critical” work, such as power generation, flood control and maintenance, according to Compass Knox.

TVA spokesman Jim Hopson estimates as many as 3,000 employees would be working from home after Wednesday. The agency’s work-from-home policy has been voluntary so far.