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Capitol View commentary: Friday, March 13, 2020

Capitol View
Posted at 12:29 PM, Mar 13, 2020
and last updated 2020-03-13 13:29:57-04

THE CORONAVIRUS GROWS INTO A PANDEMIC ALONG WITH CONCERNS FOR THE NATION’S HEALTH AND THE ECONOMY; HERE IN NASHVILLE; TORNADO; UP ON THE HILL; INSIDE POLITICS EXPLORES THE CRUSH OF ALL THAT’S IN THE NEWS;

THE CORONAVIRUS GROWS INTO A PANDEMIC ALONG WITH CONCERNS FOR THE NATION’S HEALTH AND THE ECONOMY

The continued spread of the coronavirus is creating serious issues for the local, national and world economy, especially as social distancing becomes more and more the order of the day “out of an abundance of caution.”

The U.S. stock market has continued to spiral downward and is now well into bear market territory. After weeks of downplaying the looming gravity of the situation, President Donald Trump seemed to take a different tack beginning Wednesday. When Presidents request air- time to address the nation from the Oval Office that is the ultimate signal that the nation faces a major crisis. President Trump delivered such a speech about the coronavirus Wednesday night. How did he do with his speech? Did what he said outline a solid plan to move forward? Did he reassure the nation?

On Thursday, the stock market still didn’t like what he outlined experiencing a nearly 10% plunge, its worst day percentage-wise since Black Monday in 1987 . Stocks on Thursday also, once again, temporarily suspended trading as sell orders tripped the automatic circuit breakers that regulate market stability. After several weeks of sliding, the market closed in the 21,000 range on Thursday, signaling the end of an 11-year bull market on Wall Street. Before the virus scare, the stock exchange had been trading close to 30,000. We remain in a bear market territory, although the stocks rallied by as much as 1,000 points on Friday with news Congress and the Trump administration may be nearing an economic incentive agreement on legislation to respond to the virus.

As the hours have passed since Wednesday night, the Trump speech, and the plan he outlined at that time, is being panned on something of a bi-partisan basis, although, perhaps not surprisingly, some reactions broke along partisan lines.

NEW YORK POST

CNN

THE INDEPENDENT (U.K.)

FOX NEWS

BLOOMBERG NEWS

Both of President Trump’s remaining Democratic rivals seeking to oppose him this fall, former Vice President Joe Biden and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, delivered their own coronavirus speeches on Thursday. While both were, not surprisingly, critical of Mr. Trump, they offered their critiques and virus plans in different ways. Here are some media reports on what they said. The Trump campaign’s response and an analysis of what is perhaps a critical moment in the 2020 presidential campaign is also included among the links below.

POLITICO

NBC NEWS

USA TODAY

NEW YORK TIMES

In the wake of the President’s speech, Vice President Mike Pence, who is in charge of the nation’s response to the virus, now predicts “thousands more (virus) cases”. He also decried “some irresponsible rhetoric” about the coronavirus but denied he was referring to Mr. Trump.

Reaction in Europe is angry after being blindsided by President Trump. He gave them no warning that he was banning their residents from coming to the U.S. for the next 30 days effective midnight Friday.

Americans presently in Europe also got no warning. They are upset while scrambling to find flights home. At first, what they did find was sharply higher fares (if they could even find seats). Now airlines are capping rates.

The travel industry has been taking a beating even before the President’s remarks. Airlines are flying far from full and the cruise industry has been cancelling just about everything the next several weeks. I know this first-hand. A river cruise I booked in Belgium and Holland for late April-early May has been scuttled (as is my annual Florida baseball spring training trip). While I will get some refunds the economic damage involving what happened for me and likely thousands of others remains, and will have at least a temporary negative impact on the economy.

Late Thursday it was reported President Trump says there’s “a possibility” he may limit travel within the U.S, if the coronavirus pandemic becomes “too hot.”

On Friday perhaps trying to regain his leadership footing on the coronavirus issue, the President is expected to declare a national emergency.

HERE IN NASHVILLE

In Nashville and Tennessee, the number of coronavirus cases doubled on Thursday.

The numbers (18) are still small. The issue is not how many deaths or serious illnesses might occur. It is whether there will be a need for care greater than what the local health infrastructure can handle. That is what has happened in Italy and earlier in China. If the demand for care is too great, treatments might have to triaged or rationed. Hopefully it won’t come to that. But, worst case scenario, our city’s reputation as a regional and national health care center may be put to the test.

All these actions to cancel events and large gatherings or other social separation activities now underway, are all efforts to ‘’lower the curve” to decrease and spread out the number of infections over time ,so our health care system can handle it without triaging care.

Here’s a story by NEWCHANNEL5’s Phil Williams that explains the matter in more detail.

The Thursday increase in coronavirus cases in Tennessee comes as there are signs that one of the city’s major industries, hosting tourists along with conventions, meetings and major sporting events, is beginning to take a serious financial hit. It’s a negative impact that grew throughout this week, and seems likely to continue.

Indeed in the area of large meetings, on Thursday evening the National Rifle Association (NRA) canceled its April membership meeting here.

After one night of games, the major sports event in Nashville this week, the Southeastern Conference Men’s Basketball Tournament, banned all fans from the remaining 11 games set for Thursday-Sunday. But before that plan even took effect, the SEC cancelled its tournament entirely!

The cancellation move has surely frustrated and infuriated many of the fans who bought tickets and hotel rooms to be here. Last year attendance for the SEC tourney set a record at over 200,000. The SEC joined college championships tournaments all over the country in restricting attendance and then canceling. The Ivy League had been the first to cancel its tournament.

This round of major sports “social distancing” began Wednesday with the NCAA announcing its men’s and women’s “March Madness” tournaments, set to begin next week, would be held without live audiences. By Thursday morning, March Madness was cancelled too for the first time ever!

In the professional leagues Wednesday night, the National Basketball Association suspended its season indefinitely because one of its players has tested positive for the virus. Thursday morning Nashville’s new MLS soccer team saw its inaugural season suspended at least 30 days by league officials . From there, in rapid succession on Thursday, Nashville’s other professional sports teams, the Nashville Predators of the National Hockey League and the Nashville Sounds AAA baseball team saw their seasons suspended.

The Predators were in Montreal making a late season run for the Stanley Cup playoffs. For the Sounds Major League Baseball cancelled the rest of spring training and is moving Opening Day for all major and minor league teams back by at least two weeks. The delay at least gives the Sounds more time to finish repairs to the damage its’ ballpark suffered during last week’s tornadoes. As for the NFL Tennessee Titans, this is their off-season, although nobody is sure how long this virus pandemic will last. Will the NFL Draft still some weeks away be at risk?

The PGA golf tour has cancelled all its tournaments into April. Even the most well-known and beloved major golf tournament, The Masters, set for April 9-12, is being postponed. Back on the state level, both the Tennessee boys and girls basketball tournaments have been postponed. There was an attempt to play the girls games, even without fans, but similar to the college level, that effort was quickly abandoned and the tournaments suspended for now.

Higher education is taking a hit from the threat of the virus as well. Almost every college in the Nashville area (and many across the nation and the state including the University of Tennessee system) are now extending spring break for students and indicating, when schools resume after the end of March, they will hold classes only through virtual, on-line instruction. That is likely to last at least through April and perhaps until the end of the school year. Vanderbilt has gone even further, closing dorms and sending students home to continue instructions on- line.

So far, local city and county school closings have been spotty and erratic across the state and in the Nashville area. They seem to be driven by reports of students or parents being exposed or confirmed with the virus. The school system in Dickon County closed because a student was being tested for the virus. That test came back negative.

Late in the week, there was a growing number of states and cities closing all K-12 schools. That includes states such as Kentucky and Ohio, and cities such as Atlanta and San Francisco.

With spring break for many local schools here in Nashville set for next week, some closed early this week in order to get a head start on deep-cleaning their facilities, and on the logistics for possible on-line instruction in the weeks to come. The schools situation is leading to chaos with child care plans and confusion among parents even as the wisdom and effectiveness of closing schools to combat the virus is also subject to debate.

With all this growing economic and social dislocation (distancing) occurring due to the virus, how will the local, state, national and world economies fare? Is a recession on the horizon?

So far Metro Nashville health officials are not banning any gatherings of 100 people or more (such as movie theaters and churches?). Some entertainment venues such as the Tennessee Performing Arts Center and the Schermerhorn Symphony Hall have already cancelled all their scheduled performances, at least for the near future. In the Metro Health Department’s latest advisory issued Thursday night, persons in high risk groups (over 60 with underlying health conditions) are urged to strongly consider not attending events with 100 persons or more, and if they do attend, to take all recommended precautions. The advisory adds: “Metro Public Health is monitoring the situation carefully and this guidance may be updated at any time.”

Are quarantines and cancelled large events the best, and perhaps now the only way, to fight the spread of the virus effectively?

What can we learn from history, more particularly how this pandemic compares to or is different from the Spanish Flu outbreak in 1918? The outbreak killed hundreds in Nashville during its peak month here in October, 1918.

Some American cities handled the 1918 Spanish Flu much better than others and did so using some of the some techniques now being being employed in 2020.

In so many ways, daily life as we’ve known it in America is shutting down to attack the virus. Entertainment icons such as Broadway, Disneyland and Disneyworld are temporarily closing and dimming their lights. But as the lights go down all across the country, we don’t know when things will return to normal, and if they do, how everyday life will be a new kind of normal for the future. Some also say this is all a hoax or overblown like the Y-2K scare 20 years ago at the turn of the century. For now only time (maybe the next couple of weeks) will indicate who’s right.

TORNADO

After the devastating tornadoes of last week, Middle Tennessee braced itself for another round of severe storms on Thursday night. Fortunately, this latest threat did not become anything like what was experienced on March 3. For most of this week, along with dealing with the growing coronavirus threat, communities throughout Middle Tennessee mourned and buried their dead as an additional storm victim in Putnam County was identified, bringing the total dead in that county to 19, and 25 overall in Middle Tennessee.

Those mourning did so while others continued to focus on clean-up and recovery activities, as well as tallying in terms of dollars, the tremendous damage inflicted on our area. With the continuing help of thousands of volunteers, significant progress has been made in the clean up area.

Things have stabilized enough in hard-hit Nashville communities that Metro Police now have some flexibility to take time off while continuing 12-hour work shifts. As for the overall damage costs, the ever- rising numbers are still being tabulated even as federal disaster relief efforts begin in earnest.

There are some serious public policy issues surfacing in Nashville in the wake of the storms. As we explored during our interview with Metro Councilmembers Freddie O’Connell and Brandon Taylor on last week’s INSIDE POLITICS show, there is growing concern in the community about developers using predatory practices to buy property on the cheap to destroy the character and further gentrify some Nashville neighborhoods. Now a move is underway to slow down such efforts.

NASHVILLE SCENE

In the aftermath of the tornadoes, there are also calls for Nashville to toughen its building codes. Several in impacted neighborhoods say they say newly built so-called “tall and skinny” houses were much more severely damaged compared the older homes in the neighborhoods that have been around for years. They want action by the Metro Council.

While still tallying up the monetary costs of the storms, the results so far in terms of historic homes and other iconic structures is saddening.

In the wake of the tornadoes last week and now the looming coronavirus threat, Metro Schools had suspended its search for a new Director which was far enough along to be interviewing 5 finalists. Now the School Board has decided to end the search and give the post on to Dr. Adrienne Battle, who has been the interim Schools Director for the past several months, and who was the odds on favorite to be chosen for the post full time.

As for Metro government in general, the still evolving costs from the tornado and the coronavirus are clearly stretching the city’s budget even further. With Mayor John Cooper about to present his first spending proposal to the Metro Council the end of this month, has the likelihood of some kind of tax increase being recommended become more of a certainty?

UP ON THE HILL

In the wake of the tornadoes and the slowly growing coronavirus pandemic, it’s been business as usual on Tennessee’s Capitol Hill, with no action taken yet to directly address these two challenges.

There has been talk of providing tax relief for the tornado victims. But so far, no specific legislation has been filed.

The state has already received $10 million dollars from Washington to help deal with the coronavirus. Early this week Governor Bill Lee, said his administration is inclined to hold back on spending the funds to see what happens and if the pandemic gets worse. At the time he advised against closing schools or banning large public gatherings.

However, in the wake of the World Health Organization declaring the coronavirus virus to be a pandemic on Thursday Governor Lee joined leaders in several other states in declaring a state of emergency in Tennessee which could make us eligible for additional federal funds as well as free up other state funds to help.

State lawmakers for much of the week, were following Governor Lee and taking a similar wait and see posture.

While Tennessee seems rather slow in taking action regarding the coronavirus, outside the state of emergency being declared , we stand in sharp contrast to several other cities and states across the country.

The tornado and the virus do seem to be factors for why Governor Lee has not yet been able to make an appointment to the State’s Capitol Commission. That could mean a further months-long delay in that group taking a vote about the removal of the controversial Nathan Bedford Forrest bust from the Hill.

For its own safety, at least one Nashville legislator wants the General Assembly to adjourn in light of the virus pandemic but that seems unlikely.

Late in the week, the legislative leadership did send a statement urging groups to postpone trips to see the General Assembly and Governor Lee is speeding up his efforts to facilitate a quicker than expected approval of the state’s operating budget for FY21 in case lawmakers do decide to adjourn soon due to coronavirus concerns.

If state lawmakers are not yet taking action in response to the Tennessee tornadoes and COVID-19, what are they doing? Here’s a brief overview of the week’s actions.

Governor Lee’s gun bill to allow weapons to be carried without a state permit continued to advance in a House subcommittee. The Governor’s bill moves ahead despite the director of the TBI (Tennessee Bureau of Investigation) expressing concerns.

Lawmakers also moved another controversial abortion bill through committee, positioning the measure for a vote on the House floor This is not the “omnibus” anti-abortion legislation being supported by Governor Lee, but the so called “abortion reversal” bill.

For the first time ever this week, a State Senate committee approved legislation to legalize medical marijuana in Tennessee. However, a last-minute amendment added to the bill could act as a “poison bill’ to kill the legislation.

In the world of sports, to boost Nashville’s effort to host a World Cup Soccer game, legislation has been drafted to allow state sales tax funds to be used to pay for the upgrades needed at Nissan Stadium. However, the price tag is getting a negative reaction from some lawmakers.

An effort by a Republican lawmaker to expand the state’s Medicaid (TennCare) program under the federal Affordable Care Act is over for this session. It wasn’t defeated or even voted on in committee and could be headed for further study over the summer.

Finally this week, House lawmakers once again debated making the Holy Bible the official book of the state of Tennessee. A similar bill passed both houses of the General Assembly four years ago, before it but was vetoed successfully by Governor Bill Haslam. Will it pass again in this election year, and if so, what will Governor Lee decide to do about the measure becoming law? On Thursday with impending bad weather and the coronavirus, lawmakers, eager to go home for the weekend, deferred the legislation until next week.

INSIDE POLITICS EXPLORES THE CRUSH OF ALL THAT’S IN THE NEWS

In a “regular” year, i.e., one without a coronavirus pandemic and disastrous tornadoes ravishing the area, the news in a presidential year would be dominated by the race to win the party nominations to run in the fall. This year the political contests are right now clearly taking a back seat to the coronavirus pandemic that continues to grow across the country and here in Tennessee. How much will the outbreak impact presidential politics and what is the status of the 2020 race after we’ve seen two rounds of major primaries in the last two weeks?

The presidential contest has already had its surprises as well.

Our guest to discuss those topics this week on INSIDE POLITICS is Vanderbilt professor of political science and history, Dr. Tom Schwartz.

Join us!

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