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Roundup: Lee to Offer More Details on Re-Opening Plans; Jobless Claims Still Rising

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video still/Tennessee State Parks
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Lee says details forthcoming on re-opening plan

Today, Governor Bill Lee is expected to detail his vision for re-opening closed businesses across the states, while paying mind to the physical distancing guidelines necessary to prevent a massive rise in COVID-19 cases.

It will not be business as usual come Monday, Lee told reporters at his daily briefing Thursday evening. Restaurants will operate with limited seating, with plenty of room between patrons. Retail stores will be expected to keep a six-foot distance between customers and limit the number of people in a store at a given time. The governor also said his office will keep an eye on COVID case numbers.

“We will follow data, and we will follow guidelines, and we will watch what’s happening across our state. Because the public’s safety is of utmost importance to us,” Lee said. “The way we can do this going forward is with social distancing.”

An important caveat: Lee’s plan will not apply in the state’s largest cities, including Knoxville/Knox County. In those areas, local officials are drafting their own strategies and timelines for re-opening.

Intensive testing turns up more COVID cases at East TN prison

A testing effort at Bledsoe County Correctional Complex continues to show COVID is more widespread in the facility than previously thought.

345 cases have now been confirmed at the prison less than eighty miles west-southwest of Knoxville. Earlier this week the confirmed number was 162.

Families of inmates can call a newly-established phone hotline for information, Department of Correction Commissioner Tony Parker said. A live person will be available 24/7 to field questions about the prison system’s response to COVID-19, testing and protective measures, the department said. The hotline number is (866) 858-0380.

Another East Tennessee prison, the Morgan County Correctional Complex, has not tested any inmates. That prison held a little more than 2,000 inmates as of March 31.

State parks begin to re-open

Most of Tennessee’s fifty-six state parks re-opened early this morning, but the head of the state park system says they can be shut down again if people don’t follow physical distancing and other safety guidelines.

The list of state parks open to the public this weekend includes some East Tennessee favorites, such as Big Ridge, Norris Dam and Roan Mountain.

The parks will be open during daylight hours only. Camping and overnight stays are still prohibited, and many park facilities, such as restrooms and playgrounds, remain closed.

Visitors are encouraged to wear facial masks and maintain a six-foot distance from other visitors. If overcrowding happens or chronic rule-breaking occurs, Environment and Conservation Commissioner David Salyers said the parks could go back under tight restrictions or close entirely.

Unemployment claims rise, but less sharply

Nearly 69,000 thousand Tennesseans filed for unemployment benefits the week ending April 18. While an impressive number, it represents a slower rise than previous weeks, according to state data released Thursday.

The sixteen-county region that includes the Knoxville metro area had the second-highest total of new jobless claims (Nashville’s metro area was number one). A little more than 17,000 people filed for temporary benefits.

Labor and Workforce Commissioner Jeff McCord said Thursday a recent computer server upgrade should help the department process claims and send out checks more rapidly. The department also hired 300 new staffers to handle the load. The state’s existing system was overwhelmed by the surge in new claims that began in March as many retail, food service and tourism workers were let go.

Plans announced this week to begin re-opening shuttered businesses in Tennessee will not solve the employment issue. Many businesses will be operating at lower capacity and may not need full staffing.

Since mid-March, more than 390,000 Tennesseans have filed for unemployment.