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Roundup: Tourist Attractions Open Up; Free Child Care Extended to Include More Workers

Screen Capture Gov. Lee Breifing May 21

Tourist attractions, large venues reopen ahead of a Memorial Day weekend

Governor Bill Lee signed executive order 38 allowing social gatherings of up to 50 people. Large venues like auditoriums, theatres, zoos and concert venues can also reopen Friday in 95 counties. 

All trails are reopening at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park on Saturday, and increased visitors are expected in the area. Businesses in the cities of Pigeon Forge, Sevierville and Gatlinburg will be providing free masks with printed town logos to tourists. Tennessee is spending $8.2 million on cloth masks from a North Carolina sock company.

Knox County Health Department and other major metropolitan areas are setting their own reopening guidelines. Knox County is entering phase 2 of its reopening plan on Tuesday, May 26 and will expand limits on groups from 10 to 50 people then. Gyms, places of worship, libraries and spas will also be able to reopen on Tuesday.

Knox County Health Department Director Martha Buchanan has emphasized the need for everyone to continue taking safety measures during phase two. These include physical distancing, wearing cloth face coverings, frequent and proper hand washing, cleaning surfaces and staying home when sick. 

Hotel, utility and other workers now qualify for free child care

A state-funded program to help workers pay for child care is expanding to include more people. The COVID-19 Essential Employee Child Care Payment Assistance Program launched late last month to cover childcare costs for parents who were considered essential workers during COVID-19 shutdowns. 

The expansion has made financial, religious, utility and hotel employees newly eligible to apply to the program. Department of Human Services Commissioner Danielle Barnes says the assistance program is key to relieving financial burdens on parents who have been working through the pandemic and cannot easily work from home. State officials say the program’s funding will continue through mid-August.

April unemployment rate was Tennessee’s highest on record

New, preliminary data places the seasonally adjusted unemployment rate for April at 14.4%, the state’s highest on record. The second-highest unemployment rate was in 1982 at 12.9%. Hospitality jobs in arts, entertainment and recreation saw the biggest drop, with half the amount of jobs in April 2020 than a year ago.  

There are currently about 22,000 unemployment claims that have neither been accepted nor rejected, down from 50,000 pending cases at the end of last week. Some of these claims date back to March, according to state Department of Labor commissioner Jeff McCord. He said the department is increasing its specialized support staff by training 25 new claim adjudicators and adding 35 more claims agents. The Department of Labor has six claims teams of 12-18 people working to process the more than half a million unemployment applications since mid-March.  

“We have implemented and built three new unemployment compensation systems as required under the CARES Act,” McCord said. “Now our focus of expertise, our people and our effort is on processing those claims.”

Beginning next week, the labor department will open a voicemail box so that callers can leave a message regarding their claims.

Knox County takes more cost-cutting measures

Knox County is moving parks and recreation landscaping into public hands to save more than $83,000 a year. County mayor Glenn Jacobs says a newly-formed landscaping team within the parks department will handle mowing at nine parks. Private contractors will still take care of twenty-one others. More than 350 county employees are currently furloughed in another cost-cutting measure due to COVID-19. 

WUOT’s Brandon Hollingsworth contributed to this report.