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Roundup: Expo Center Details; State and Local Parks Limit Activity

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Brandon Hollingsworth, WUOT News
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Knoxville Expo Center expected to provide 350 beds for COVID patients

When the Army Corps of Engineers is done overhauling the Knoxville Expo Center off Clinton Highway, the event facility will have room for 350 patients.

The overhaul is part of a plan Gov. Bill Lee announced Thursday to increase capacity to deal with serious cases of COVID-19 in the state’s largest cities. Buildings in Chattanooga, Memphis and Nashville will also be retrofitted to serve as makeshift medical wards. The plan is based on a computer model that forecasts Tennessee will need more hospital beds and intensive care beds than are currently available.

The people to be housed at the Expo Center will be those in need of hospitalization, but not the most dire cases, Lee said Friday. Other sites are being considered in case the need for even more space arises.

“What was most important to me was to get started,” Lee said after meeting with Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon and Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs. “Let’s work with our local health care providers and determine how beds we’re actually going to need. And if we need to start a second facility…then let’s do that, but we need to get this first one going. We know we’re going to need this first round of beds.”

The Expo Center may be ready in three weeks’ time, the governor said, about the time the computer model forecasts COVID-19 cases will hit a maximum in Tennessee.

Big changes at recreation areas and parks

Though Governor Bill Lee’s “stay at home” order makes an exception for outdoor activity, many East Tennesseans will have to find that activity close to home.

The Tennessee State Parks system announced all state parks and natural areas are closed through at least April 14. The decision was made to support Gov. Lee’s “stay at home” executive order, state environmental commissioner David Salyers said. Several of Tennessee’s popular state parks are in East Tennessee, including Norris Dam, Ozone Falls, Big Ridge and Seven Islands.

Several Tennessee Valley Authority recreation areas are off-limits beginning today. Park land and facilities at Cherokee Lake, Fort Loudoun Reservoir, Norris Lake, Tellico Lake and Watts Bar Reservoir will be closed indefinitely. That includes boat launches, picnic areas, restrooms, beaches and pavilions. Walking trails on undeveloped TVA public land remain open, as will river access points outside the closed zones. TVA wants people not to sneak into closed recreation areas, and says law enforcement will be on patrol.

Also beginning Friday, park areas operated by Knox County will enter a passive mode. That means they will still be open to the public, but specific amenities will close, including ball fields, skate parks, basketball courts and beach volleyball courts. House Mountain Natural Area, a popular hiking spot in northeastern Knox County, will also close. For now, county dog parks, greenways, tennis courts and golf courses remain open.

Dog parks in the city of Knoxville will close indefinitely, beginning Saturday, April 4.

All the announced measures are intended to combat the spread of COVID-19.

McGhee Tyson forecasts fewer flights in April

The agency that oversees McGhee Tyson Airport says it expects significant drops in scheduled daily flights and passenger loads this month.

Scheduled flights into and out of the airport could fall by 50 percent, and passenger rolls by 85 percent, according to Metropolitan Knoxville Airport Authority spokeswoman Becky Huckaby.

Huckaby said the forecast comes from the anticipated effects of federal, state and local orders discouraging non-essential travel. The airport will continue to host essential flights, such as those for medical supplies and general cargo shipments.

Arconic idling Blount County operations

Aluminum products maker Arconic says it will temporarily close its Blount County plant beginning Monday, April 6. A company spokeswoman says it’s because several of Arconic’s biggest customers have themselves been sidelined by the COVID-19 economic slowdown, reducing incoming orders. The company offered no further details. Less than a week ago, Arconic announced work schedule reductions for its Blount County plant.

Last year Arconic embarked on a $110 million expansion at the factory. At the time the plant employed more than 900 hourly workers. At least 30 positions were cut last fall.

Trump approves Tennessee disaster declaration

President Trump approved Gov. Bill Lee’s request for a federal disaster declaration, opening emergency aid to the state, some local governments, and select private nonprofits. The money is intended to implement “emergency protective measures,” according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Lee told reporters Friday his coronavirus task force has the declaration in hand, and is now deciding how to allocate its money. No specifics have been announced.