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Capitol View commentary: Friday, March 20, 2020

Posted: 1:43 PM, Mar 20, 2020
Updated: 2020-03-20 14:52:27-04
Capitol View

CAPITOL VIEW
By Pat Nolan, NEWSCHANNEL 5 Political Analyst
March 20, 2020

THE CORONAVIRUS PANDEMIC GROWS AS THE SOCIAL & ECONOMIC SHUTDOWN CONTINUES; THE NATIONAL SCENE; THE STATE OF TENNESSEE; BACK TO NASHVILLE; THE STRANGEST METRO COUNCIL MEETING EVER; PRESIDENTIAL PRIMARIES CONTINUE DESPITE THE CORONAVIRUS; INSIDE POLITICS ASSESSES NASHVILLE’S UNIQUE AND CHALLENGING SITUATION IN THE AGE OF THE VIRUS

THE CORONAVIRUS PANDEMIC GROWS AS THE SOCIAL & ECONOMIC SHUTDOWN CONTINUES

As our daily lives and the economy continue to collapse in the wake of the coronavirus, we face a near complete shutdown in this nation for the next several weeks, or perhaps longer. When will everything (our jobs, schools, restaurants, church services, bars, sport, grocery stores, or (fill in the blank) return to normal?

I would say any postponement, or restriction put in place with an end or rescheduled resumption date given, you probably should treat that as more of a place card or a hopeful guess, rather than a commitment or a certainty. Nobody knows for sure how long this pandemic will last. That puts even events and things scheduled for this summer, fall or even the rest of the year in some doubt.

A reprieve it seems may come down to how well all of us follow the “social distancing” and other restrictions that are now being either strongly recommended or required, especially in areas where the virus is already peaking and threatening to overwhelm the health care system and other parts of our social safety net systems.

The irony is the more successful we are in stopping the virus, by following the recommended social distancing restrictions, the more we may look like we overreacted when things do subside.

Then when things begin to stabilize, how quickly do we begin to loosen up or remove the restrictions? The pressure to get “back to normal” and revive the economy will be overwhelming. But moving too quickly we are told could bring the virus back. Trying to get back to normal from our “new normal” is already indeed maddening.

Will all these restrictions work? Might we find out somewhat quickly about that here In Nashville? Nashville has, by far, had the most cases of the virus confirmed in Tennessee. This week there was a significant rise in those numbers. For example, we saw those confirmed to be ill with the virus in Nashville nearly double in one day (between reports on Tuesday and Wednesday). It was up to 60 by Thursday, a rise of 14 cases in the last 24 hours. As for state, its COVID-19 number is 154 up from 98 on Wednesday. Nashville cases make up almost half of the ones throughout. On Friday morning, the numbers are:

110 confirmed cases of coronavirus COVID-19 in Nashville/Davidson County, an increase of 50 cases in the past 24 hours. The age range for all confirmed cases in Nashville is from 11 to 73 years old. Of the confirmed cases, 2 remain hospitalized. Fifteen people have recovered from the virus. The remaining cases are self-isolating at home and have mild and manageable symptoms.

Cases by sex
Male: 53
Female: 53
Unknown: 4
Total number of Cases: 110
Number of Cases confirmed today: 50
Total Cases by age
Unknown 15
5-17 1
18-49 75
50-64 12
65+ 7
Total 110
Recovered 15

The statewide numbers for Friday will be available later this afternoon.

It is clear these increases in Nashville are due, at least in part, to the increased testing that the State, Metro and the local health care sector are now doing here in city and soon across the state. Even several drive through testing locations are being added in Nashville next week. Hopefully, the increasing Nashville virus numbers do not portend a spike that might make the city a new hot spot for the pandemic. That might bring on more restrictions as it has elsewhere.

Also hopefully, the executive order issued by Mayor John Cooper late Wednesday afternoon declaring a state of emergency in all of Nashville Davidson County, is more cautionary preparation and required paperwork. According to a mayoral news release the executive order is to enhance “Metro Government’s ability to respond to the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) as provided under Tennessee state law and Metro code. “

“Our number one priority is to ensure the health, safety, and welfare of the community, says Mayor Cooper. “Just as the federal government, governor’s office, and local health department have declared states of emergency to prevent the spread of this virus and help those who have been afflicted, Nashville must use this declaration as a valuable tool to protect all our residents.”

No new restrictions were announced with the emergency declaration, although the city’s Emergency Operations Center has been activated, a move normally done in anticipation of or in response to a significant natural disaster, such as happened with the recent tornadoes of March 3rd.

Making those Nashville numbers even more concerning is the assertion I have heard from some health experts that the numbers being reported actually reflect how the disease had spread some days or a couple of weeks ago, not how bad things really are right now, or how severe things might still get. That lack in numbers is apparently due, again, to the lack of testing. Stay tuned.

On Friday Metro also announced the end of dine-in service at all restaurants throughout Nashville and Davidson County. Take-out orders, drive-thru service, curbside pickup, and delivery service are permitted, as long as restaurant patrons do leave the premise with the food and do not stay to dine in the restaurant. All gyms are also restricted from being open at this time.

In addition, Metro Health Director Dr. Michael Caldwell is issuing a public health advisory for churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, and other houses of worship in Davidson Count. The advisory urges all faith organizations to refrain from physically meeting to adhere to CDC social distancing guidelines.

Mayor John Cooper is meeting with faith leaders at 1:00 PM on Friday, March 20, 2020 to discuss the public health advisory and organize a weekend of prayer across Nashville’s faith communities. Governor Bill Lee is also speaking out on the issue.

One last concern on the statewide virus numbers. Unless they change radically, it looks like well over half the 95 counties have no cases reported. As testing ramps up the virus will be found. As that occurs it is not at all clear rural areas of Tennessee and throughout the South have anything close to the health care infrastructure needed to handle the situation especially with so many rural hospitals closing in recent years.

THE NATIONAL SCENE

After weeks of downplaying the seriousness of the pandemic (calling it “a hoax” or something that will soon go away) President Donald Trump seems to have suddenly “gotten religion” on this matter. He’s now calling himself a “war time President” battling an “invisible enemy” and asking the public to make sacrifices.

In terms of federal actions, large-scale testing efforts are finally, but still slowly and inadequately, getting underway. To try and fill the void, state and local governments are joining with the independent and private sectors to try to help, although in some areas, such as needed medical equipment, the Trump administration had been telling already hard-hit areas across the country, they would be on their own for assistance. But then, typical of his administration’s leadership on the issue, the President changed his mind about that on Wednesday.

The President did take steps to send military hospital ships to both coasts to assist areas where the health care systems appear about to be overwhelmed from the spike of virus victims needing hospital care. The ships would not handle COVID-19 patients but handle other hospital cases. But Pentagon officials later said it will take weeks for the vessels to deploy. As far as what the feds have stockpiled in terms of ventilators and protective equipment to help hospital workers and other first responders do their jobs without fear, we seem to be coming up way short of what could be needed.

On Thursday, President Trump told reporters the federal government is ‘not a shipping clerk” and again indicated states are on their own for the medical equipment they need. In his Thursday briefing the President could not stop talking about what he says could be “a gamechanger” to stopping the pandemic. It’s medication already approved and used to treat patients with malaria and Ebola. But again, Food & Drug Administration officials are warning there is need to make sure these medicines are effective with this virus. Bottom line: another mixed message from the Trump administration.

Late Thursday afternoon, the U.S. State Department issued a Level 4 travel advisory urging all Americans not to travel outside the country, and for already traveling to come home immediately. Like nations all over the world, the U.S. is also restricting its land borders. The immediate irony of that is the U.S. has many more virus cases than both Canada and Mexico, and while that could change as COFED-19 spreads worldwide, the Trump administration is not missing a chance to further restrict the flow of refugees seeking asylum from the south.

This has improved in recent days but the “guidance” coming from our federal officials early on was sometimes conflicting or changed quite quickly. For example, the number of people recommended to meet safe social distancing standards went from 50 to 25 to 10 it seemed in just a matter of hours. It is one reason why we have a hodgepodge of rules and regulations throughout the 50 states concerning the pandemic.

The Trump administration and Congress are succeeding in one area where they have long been considered, true experts. That would be proposing to spend now trillions of dollars to address the serious health and economic dislocation and other issues COVID-19 is causing. Nobody wants to further add to our nation’s already exploding deficit (remember those Trump tax cuts?), but given the gravity of what we face, this may be one time where we must spend more. Even if our grandchildren will have to pay for it, action now to save the economy today, may also save an economic future for them to prosper.

One other thing Congress is good at is falling into arguments and side issues that delay quick action. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell likely stunned everyone, when after single-handedly stopping lots of House—approved legislation on a wide variety of issues, he suddenly promised “warp speed” action on the coronavirus legislation only to see his fellow Kentucky Senator Rand Paul seek to gum up the works. Finally, late Wednesday afternoon, the second coronavirus aid bill, already approved by the House last week, was passed by the Senate. It includes paid sick leave and free virus testing while other larger aid measures are still pending or being drafted including a plan to send everyone checks for $1,000-$1200 or more.

The bill, approved by the Senate, had just 8 votes in opposition, all cast by Republicans who cited fears that the legislation would put undue financial burdens on small businesses to provide paid sick leave amidst an economic downturn from the coronavirus pandemic. One of those who voted no was Tennessee Senator Marsha Blackburn.

Blackburn’s vote has come in for scathing criticism from Democratic Nashville Congressman Jim Cooper.

“What can you conclude when one of Tennessee’s two U.S. Senators is one of only eight NO votes today to help American families cope with Coronavirus, asked Congressman Cooper? “That Marsha Blackburn is more extreme than President Trump and Mitch McConnell? That she didn’t know what she was doing? I think Tennesseans want strong, bipartisan relief from the terrible Coronavirus threat. We need help now, not NO votes.”

For the record the other Tennessee House members (all Republicans) who voted against the aid bill include John Roe, Tim Burchett, Scott DesJarlais and John Rose.

Late Thursday, after some back and forth, Senate Republicans did agree on the contents of the third trillion- dollar COFDED-19 relief bill. But will Democrats in the Senate and the House get on board to pass the legislation?

While money is being spent in Washington like it is going out of style, one of the latest indication of how serious things are, the IRS has announced Friday morning that Tax Day to file and pay federal income taxes is being pushed back from April 15 to July 15.

While new developments seem to be occurring at lightning speed, why does everything surrounding the virus remain so uncertain? Medical experts say we are flying blind in large measure because the federal government missed whatever opportunity we had to get ahead of the virus to test the population, so we don’t really know or have models to estimate where and how bad the pandemic is ,or to model how bad it could become, or the best ways to stop it.

The stock market still seems to remain unconvinced the steps being taken will be successful. There was another steep decline on Monday, followed by a small recovery on Tuesday, then another sharp decline on Wednesday, then a slight rise in stocks Thursday. On both days when the markets fell, trading was automatically suspended for a brief time to keep it from being worse because sell orders were mounting up so quickly. Even worse news for the President, the market decline on the Dow Jones average on Wednesday, at least for a time, erased all the gains the stocks had seen since Mr. Trump took office three plus years in 2017. The Dow index closed under 20,000 on Wednesday for the first time in three years. It was back above that mark on Thursday. On Friday, the market opened a bit higher again perhaps in response to the efforts by Federal Reserve officials and other world banks to intervene and support the markets.

The New York Stock Exchange has been planning to convert to all electronic trading with no floor trading allowed. To protect those on the often- crowded trading floor from potential exposure to COVED-19, that conversion will start Monday.

The economy continues to nose drive. President Trump admits a recession is possible. One of his top cabinet officials warns unemployment could skyrocket to 20% if the nation doesn’t take strong action, even though he later backed away from that prediction.

The job cuts are already beginning. Applications for unemployment assistance nationally rose 70,000 this week compared to the first week in March. Web sites taking unemployment applications in some states are crashing. The cutbacks in the travel, hospitality, leisure and tourism industries are adding up, industries which are critical to the Nashville and Tennessee economy.

And, while these actions are not layoffs, there are the temporary plant shutdowns coming in the auto industry (through the end of month or longer). Auto manufacturing is a major employer in Tennessee. The temporary plant closings could also have a ripple effect for just in time suppliers. To protect their employees from the virus, for various lengths of time, automaker Nissan here in Middle Tennessee is also shutting down its plants as is Nashville based Bridgestone Americas and Volkswagen in Chattanooga.

In the wake of all this economic angst, some major firms feel they need hundreds, if not thousands of additional workers. That includes Kroger and Amazon among others.

As for public opinion, the job approval numbers for the President have already been declining. The Gallup poll, over just the last two weeks, shows him going from 47% approval down to 44%.

A new poll released Friday indicates the President’s change in tone and more hand on approach to the virus crisis is helping his approval numbers on this issue.

THE STATE OF TENNESSEE

While Washington remains somewhat in disarray, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee and Nashville Mayor John Cooper began to take significant steps this week to arrest the spread of the virus and assist those adversely impacted. For Governor Lee, last week he asked all schools to close by Friday, which they did.

Many schools are still remaining active providing meals to their students. Next week, at least here in Nashville, that will expand to providing breakfast and lunch to any young person under age 18. It is nutrition many of them might not otherwise receive at home. Because of the digital divide, MNPS is not providing distance learning, but it is offering ideas for activities for students on its website.

More and more this appears to be a lost school year. The Legislature has set aside the requirement for annual student testing and waive the minimum days of attendance required for Tennessee school systems. Washington is being asked to concur with those moves. On a more day- to- day level for students and parents, what happens (particularly for high school seniors) regarding those milestone events such as proms, finals, graduations, final grades and transcripts along with pending college applications and admissions? All those matters seem be in question.

A for Governor Lee, his efforts are focusing to provide relief to adults already or soon to be impacted by the virus either by job layoff or illness. They were outlined in a briefing he held with reporters on Tuesday.

Concerned about the possible lack of critical hospital equipment to help those most critically ill with the virus, the state is ordering over 500 ventilators. But it will take time to get all those machines on line, with the state hoping to have 80- 150 ventilators new available by sometime next week. Right now the state says t has 1500 beds and 537 ventilators ready.

On Thursday, Governor Lee issued an executive order that will relieve regulations on health professionals and boost health care capacity and customer service.

One long time bottle neck in state government that attracts long lines are the Driver’s License Bureaus. Governor Lee on Thursday announced actions to deal with that.
In agreement with legislative leaders, the Governor this week submitted a revised state operating budget to be reviewed and approved by lawmakers by the end of week. Lawmakers completed that work late Thursday.

Approving a balanced budget is the only required responsibility of the General Assembly each year. Governor Lee’s revised spending plan is $900 is $900 million LESS than what he recommended to thr General Assembly in January. It is based on a sharp decrease in state revenue growth, down to 0% in the next fiscal year causing a need to safeguard state services. The budget plan uses the State Rainy Fund to cushion the revenue loss while providing assistance for those in need due to the virus, which is exactly what the Rainy Day Fund was supposed to do (although nobody ever saw a scenario quite like this coming). Fortunately for Nashville and Middle Tennessee, the Governor’s revised budget does includes relief for the victims of the Middle Tennessee tornadoes.

Here’s a further overview of the revised budget which also saw several cuts to education including a 4% teacher pay raise cut in half, BEP funding reduced and a new $250 million dollar trust fund to help teachers and their students with mental issue slashed.

Interestingly, despite the cuts, the Governor’s controversial school voucher program would still be funded in the revised state budget to begin a pilot program this fall in Memphis and Nashville.

After dismissing calls by Democrats two weeks ago to recess early in wake of the coronavirus, that is exactly what will happen on Capitol Hill. The General Assembly has now gone on an emergency temporary recess. The plan now is for lawmakers to come back to Nashville no earlier than June 1 to deal with any other issues or further revise the budget, if needed.

This week, with the public banned from the Cordell House legislative building due to fear of the virus, there was concern non “mission critical” (non-budget related items) were being snuck in for possible last minute votes by lawmakers.

There was also concern about how much time state lawmakers spent behind closed doors discussing the budget in secret.

One other hiccup in the state’s overall outreach efforts regarding COVID-19, hundreds of calls to its COVID-19 hotline are daily being put on hold.

BACK TO NASHVILLE

In Nashville, Mayor John Cooper last Sunday called a special meeting of the Metro Board of Health to close down bars all over Nashville and ask to follow “social distancing’ by reconfiguring their seating to just 50% of their present capacity or to provide only take out or delivery service.

Restaurant owners have seemed to adapt and comply with the request. The move to close bars was at first angrily rejected by Lower Broad honkey- tonk owners who called it unconstitutional unless ordered by the state. But then on Monday, when Governor Bill Lee said he supported Mayor Cooper’s moves to combat the virus, the bar owners gave in. It seems the Mayor’s action last weekend to close the bars might well have been taken as a result of the blatant “business as usual” attitude taking place on Lower Broad. Video of the crowds filling the bars to overflowing went viral all over the nation and the world. Late word from the federal Centers for Disease Control indicates that the coronavirus does not just place those over 60 at most risk. In fact, close to 40% of those being hospitalized are younger people.

To help those who make their living as servers or playing gigs n the now closed bars on Lower Broad, or elsewhere in Nashville, Mayor Cooper on Tuesday announced the creation of a COVID-19 Response Fund chaired by former Tennessee U.S. Senator and Majority Leader Dr. Bill Frist.

With the help from United Way of Greater Nashville, the Fund had already raised $1 million, with the first donation of $500,000 coming from the Nashville Visitors and Convention Corp. The Frist Foundation donated another $1 million which was announced Thursday morning. From a mayor’s office news release: “The Fund will focus its initial allocations on helping our neighbors who are experiencing lost wages or who become ill from the virus receive the assistance they need to stay in their homes and keep food on the table.” It is hoped the Response Fund will start distributing funds to those in need before the end of the week.

Meanwhile some of the owners on Lower Broad are stepping up on their own to help their employees through donations or keeping them on the payroll.

Statewide hospitality workers are banding together seeking help from all levels of government to prevent their industry from being destroyed.

The COVID-19 pandemic is creating great strain on law enforcement agencies and on local jails. Nashville Sheriff Daron Hall is acting to release some inmates while Metro Police are taking steps too.

Finally, the city is also setting up its own webpage to help the public find the information it needs about this constantly evolving situation.

COVID19.Nashville.Gov

Finally, in terms of relief and recovery from the March 3 tornado, a number of efforts continue to be underway, new FEMA offices open, $1 million in small business loans approved although there are indications the virus is hampering the number of volunteers turning out.

Another sign of recovery from the tornado, the John Tune civil aviation located in West Nashville in Cockrill Bend re-opened today (Friday) after sustaining $93 million in infrastructure damage alone.

THE STRANGEST METRO COUNCIL MEETING EVER

I have covered Metro Council meetings since 1973. I have seen heated debates, close votes, even multiple bomb scares that cleared the Council chambers and the Metro Courthouse. But I have never seen a Council meeting anything like what I observed last Tuesday night.

I observed it on TV. I was not there at the Council meeting to perform my regular duties as announcer and host of the Metro Nashville Network’s live TV coverage of the Council sessions. Vice Mayor Jim Schulman asked me not to come, as he did several staff and city employees who assist during the regular Council meetings.

With the Council itself numbering 40 people, the meeting was already well over the requirement to try and keep any gatherings to 10 people or less, in accordance with “social distancing” mandates to hold down the potential spread of the coronavirus.

To try and be safe, Council members were seated several feet apart all over the chambers including in the back where the public normally sits. Why hold the meeting under all these extraordinary circumstances? Well, the law requires the Council meet twice a month (the first and third Tuesdays) and there was some important business to conduct.

What does the future hold for future Council meetings? Nothing has been announced, but Mayor John Cooper is set to deliver his first State of Metro address and proposed operating budget in the Council chambers on March 31st. I hear it might be done digitally, on-line instead. As for the next full Council meeting set April 7, I hope I can be back to my TV host job. But if the 10-people or less meeting restrictions are still in force, I may not get my wish.

The revised Council format worked very well, thanks to the determination, leadership and creative efforts of Vice Mayor Jim Schulman. But long term, it may not as well. Anything that might have created extended debate last Tuesday was deferred to keep the meeting short. That, along with the public being absent (except watching on TV), might not work well in the future, especially with Metro’s most difficult budget process ever about to get underway. And, God forbid, Council members test positive for the virus, further complicating conducting meetings.

There was an effort in the waning hours of the General Assembly to pass a law to allow virtual meetings to be conducted and votes be taken on- line by local governmental bodies during this time of crisis. Both Houses passed legislation. But lawmakers passed different bills that did not get reconcile before the crush to adjourn took over, and so nothing happened to deal with the issue.

Congress faces even greater challenges. Two House members have tested positive for the virus and several House members and Senators have placed themselves under quarantine after being exposed to someone with the illness. How does Congress function if the virus becomes more prevalent among its members and staff? What are the challenges and changes to our democratic processes and institutions that we may face as, our legislative leaders go digital and on- line (but hopefully, not behind closed doors) to deliberate a Making those Nashville numbers even more concerning is the assertion I have heard from some health experts that the numbers being reported actually reflect how the disease had spread some days or a couple of weeks ago, not how bad things really are right now, or how severe things might still get. That lack in numbers is apparently due, again, to the lack of testing. Stay tuned. nd vote on the public’s business? House Speaker Nancy Pelosi says time to reassess the concept of remote voting which has been dismissed in the past.

And there is this scandal unfolding on the Hill.

Stay tuned.

Despite the continued spread of the coronavirus the process of selecting the major party candidates to run for President this fall, continues. Three states held primary elections this week (Florida, Illinois and Arizona). A fourth, Ohio deferred its election until June. Some states are also moving their primaries back which if it turns out the votes are not held, could create some challenges for the upcoming national party conventions. Of course, in this strange new world we live in, including politics, the conventions themselves might need to be re-thought if the virus hangs around. Yes, I know that sounds crazy. But we’ve seen many crazy things come to pass in the last week or so, that would have been thought impossible.

Actually based on this week’s primary results, President Donald Trump, running all but unopposed, has already garnered enough delegates to win re-nomination from the Republican Party. The leading Democratic Party candidate, former Vice President Joe Biden is not there yet. But by sweeping this week’s primaries he is in a commanding position to win his party’s nomination putting still more pressure on Biden’s remaining major rival, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders to drop out of the race. After Tuesday’s elections, the Sanders spokesman says the candidate is reassessing his campaign, but perhaps tellingly that the end is nigh, digital ads placed on Sanders’ behalf are being cancelled.

What Sanders should do is still a subject for debate among progressives.

By the way, Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, another candidate in the Democratic contest, who never gained much traction with voters, dropped out of the race on Thursday. She had garnered 3 delegates. The Representative is endorsing Joe Biden.

INSIDE POLITICS ASSESSES NASHVILLE’S UNIQUE AND CHALLENGING SITUATION IN THE AGE OF THE VIRUS

Both the United States and the whole world are reeling from the unprecedented dangers and challenges from the coronavirus.

But Nashville faces even more difficulties after suffering a devastating tornado on March 3 that inflicted major damages on neighborhoods across the city and claimed two lives. Nashville also faces challenges with its city finances still fragile and critical decisions about to be made as Metro government faces perhaps its most difficult budget process ever.

As a group, nobody is more plugged into our city than the 40 members of the Metro Council. Two of the county-wide elected members of that body join us this week on INSIDE POLITICS to discuss all these challenges. They are Bob Mendes and Steve Glover. We thank them for joining us and hope you will tune in for an insightful conversation.

INSIDE POLITICS airs several times over the weekend on NEWSCHANNEL5 PLUS. Those times include:

7:00 p.m. Friday;
5:00 a.m., 3:00 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. Saturday;
1:30 a.m. & 5:00 a.m. on Sunday.

THE PLUS is on Comcast Cable channel 250, Charter Cable channel 182 and on NEWSCHANNEL5’s over-the-air digital channel 5.2.

One option for those who can’t see the show locally or who are out of town, you can watch it live with streaming video on NEWSCHANNEL5.com. Just use your TiVo or DVR, if those live times don't work for you.

This week’s show and previous INSIDE POLITICS interviews are also posted on the NEWSCHANNEL5 website for your viewing under the NEWSCHANNEL5 PLUS section. A link to the show is posted as well on the Facebook page of NEWSCHANNEL5 PLUS. Each new show and link are posted the week after the program airs.

Finally, I am now posting a link to the show each week on my Facebook page as soon as it is available, usually on Monday or Tuesday.