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Capitol View commentary: Friday, May 15, 2020

Capitol View
Posted at 12:54 PM, May 15, 2020
and last updated 2020-05-15 13:54:05-04

CAPITOL VIEW
By Pat Nolan, NEWSCHANNEL 5 Political Analyst
May 15, 2020
ANOTHER WEEK OF MIXED MESSAGES; A GROWING CONTROVERSY OVER SHARING PATIENT VIRUS INFORMATION WITH FIRST RESPONDERS; NASHVILLE REOPENS; VIRUS HOT SPOTS BUILD; A MULTI-SIDED METRO PROPERTY TAX FIGHT FORMS; A BIG STATE REVENUE CRUNCH BEGINS TO BECOME MORE APPARENT; THE RELIEF IMPASSE CONTINUES IN WASHINGTON; ON THE CAMPAIGN TRAIL; DR. THOMAS SCHWARTZ ON INSIDE POLITICS WITH A WORLD VIEW ON THE VIRUS IMPACT; THE WEEKLY NUMBERS WHILE STILL MORE KINDNESS FLOWS;

ANOTHER WEEK OF MIXED MESSAGES

As we enter the seventh week of the coronavirus pandemic, the leadership messages out of Washington are more mixed than ever.

On Monday, President Donald Trump proclaimed the United States had “met the moment” in providing the necessary amount of virus testing to reopen the economy. But his victory lap did not go completely as planned.

The very next day, the most respected infectious disease physician in the nation, Dr. Anthony Fauci testified to a Senate committee. He maintains that because no vaccine or effective treatment for COVID-19 is available, a premature opening of the economy without following CDC guidelines (which have been shelved by the White House) could lead to dire consequences.

Dr. Fauci testified on-line, along with two other two national health officials. They did so out of an abundance of caution after two top White House aides who the doctors work with (President Trump’s valet and Vice President Mike Pence’s press secretary) both tested positive for COVID-19. Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander, who chaired the committee hearing, also participated virtually, after one of his aides tested positive.

Senator Alexander is very concerned about a lack of testing nationally in particular in reopening schools such as the University of Tennessee this fall.

On the lighter note, Senator Alexander’s recent virtual appearances from home seem to have been upstaged by his dog.

While Senator Alexander and the doctors are self-quarantining themselves, and White House staff in the West Wing are wearing masks and being tested daily, both the President and Vice President Mike Pence are rarely, if ever, wearing masks. There are also questions cropping up about the accuracy of the tests being used in the White House. Add it all up, and on a bipartisan basis, people are noticing and the polling on the topic is not positive for Mr. Trump.

President Trump later in the week tried to push back on Dr. Fauci. The President says it is time to re-open schools, adding the health leader is wrong in trying to be on all sides of an issue. But polling indicates the President is facing a tough obstacle in overcoming public trust in Dr. Fauci.

The battle of mixed messages continued late in the week. On Thursday, a federal whistleblower and former head of the nation’s effort create a COVID-19 vaccine testified before a House committee that, despite all the ballyhoo about progress over finding a vaccine to fight COVFID-19, the continuing lack of a coordinated federal strategy in combating the virus, is about to hurt the nation as it suffers through what he says might be the “darkest winter in modern history.”

Even before the congressional testimony was done, President Trump and the boss of the whistleblower, the Secretary of Health and Human Services, were trying to debunk what was said.

The President then closed the week Thursday, in some ways just like he began it on Monday. Visiting (without wearing a mask) a medical equipment distribution center in the election battleground state of Pennsylvania, Mr. Trump again praised the nation’s virus testing capacity, but then added testing is “frankly overrated,” despite what his health and medical advisors say.

Sometimes I think we have more often conflicting messages coming out of Washington about combatting the coronavirus, than Carter has little pills.

A GROWING CONTROVERSY OVER SHARING PATIENT VIRUS INFORMATION WITH FIRST RESPONDERS

There is a growing controversy about the Lee administration sharing information with first responders across the state about who has tested positive for COVID-19.

In a somewhat familiar pattern during this crisis, state health officials reportedly declined, at first, to share the data. But after some further pressure was brought to bear on other top officials maintaining that sharing the information was vital to protect first responders, the decision was reversed much to the unhappiness of both Democratic and Republican state lawmakers. They feel it is a violation of patient confidentiality.

And still others are speaking out.

The issue has ramifications for Nashville as well. The city has been sharing its COVID-19 patient information with local first responders.

Another issue for Nashville officials is the arrest of a homeless man who was put in jail for breaking quarantine after he tested positive for COVID-19 at the Nashville Union Rescue Mission. He was at the city’s temporary homeless shelter at the Fairgrounds when he bolted, creating a good bit of controversy over his case.

NASHVILLE REOPENS

With the city expanding its emergency order for another month, Monday, May 11 marked the beginning of Phase I of Nashville’s economic re-opening trying to rebound from the self-induced shutdown due to COVID-19.

The biggest change under Phase I was a re-opening at 50% capacity for restaurants and retail businesses. Here are the Phase I guidelines to be followed by businesses and the public to keep everyone safe.

On the first day of the reopening, the city received 250 complaints from the public about the rules not being followed. In response Metro says during this first week it is emphasizing education and building awareness in contacting those in violation. But the city is serious about the matter and says ongoing complaints could result in businesses losing their licenses to operate. Mayor John Cooper and health officials also urge citizens to complain and not patronize businesses where they do not feel safe.

In the wake of all this uncertainty over the virus, the reopening has gone somewhat slowly as customers begin to trickle back in.

Even some of the city’s largest shopping facilities, such as The Mall at Green Hills has reopened as of Wednesday, but it is doing so slowly, and they say safely.

Even as it observes its 20th anniversary, another of Nashville’s large shopping malls, Opry Mills, is beginning to come back to life.

It doesn’t appear Mayor Cooper and his health advisors will change their minds, but there continue to be calls that live music entertainment be brought back more quickly in local restaurants.

There are also long odds that a local racetrack in Goodlettsville will be allowed to reopen more quickly.

While the city’s daily number of new virus cases continues to be somewhat erratic, the dashboard of indictors city officials are monitoring to see if Metro can move to Phase II of the reopening by May 25 is improving. The infection rate has dropped below 1, so the dashboard now shows just one yellow caution light. Everything else is green.

The latest virus model from the Vanderbilt Medical Center also indicates improvement in Nashville’s and the state’s status. It appears we’ve done such a good job in social distancing that much has been accomplished to make a huge difference in a short period of time. However, modelers say it is still too early to know what the impact will be of the recent re-openings by the state and the city.

At the same time, the Metro coronavirus task force is now publicly pushing back on some national media stories about Nashville done by CBS and ABC News, among others. The stories cite an unreleased White House report claiming Nashville has recently been one of the nation’s hot spots for the virus with an increase in cases of well over 100%. Not true say Nashville officials. Local officials are so concerned, they have sent out an open letter to Nashville residents outlining the reasons the media reports are wrong.

May 14, 2020

Dear Fellow Nashvillians:

I am writing to address several recent national news stories that contain inaccurate information on the coronavirus in Nashville. I want to reassure you that we are not seeing the spike in cases that was reported, and that the metrics we used to determine the safety of reopening are stable and improving.

The stories in question were based on an undisclosed White House report which claimed that during the week of May 7, Nashville’s rate of new coronavirus cases rose by 129%. Unfortunately, the stories failed to explain that this number included the 12 counties surrounding Nashville, not just Davidson County. During the week in question, there was a significant outbreak of COVID-19 cases at the prison in Trousdale County and a large number of cases in Rutherford County. However, the increase in cases for Nashville/Davidson County was just 17%, not 129%. At that time, Nashville was still under the Safer at Home Order. In recent days, our average number of new cases has been less than 100.

The decision by Nashville Mayor John Cooper to issue a Safer at Home Order on March 23 helped contain the virus. He was one of the first mayors in the southeast to take this step. As a result, Nashville has a transmission rate under 1.0, adequate hospital capacity and has begun to slow the rate of new cases. We have been following the data and the science. It is important to set the record straight and to inform you of the real numbers.

Nashville has been a leader in its response to the coronavirus. Now, it is engaged in a multi- phased plan to reopen the city. We appreciate the efforts of all Nashvillians to slow the spread of the virus. In the coming weeks and months, we must continue to be vigilant as we begin to reopen together.

Sincerely,
Alex Jahangir, MD, MMHC
Chair
Metro Coronavirus Task Force

VIRUS HOT SPOTS BUILD

As the State of Tennessee moves towards Week 3 of its economic reopening, some of the highest increases in new virus cases have been seen this past week. But not to worry say state health officials. Most of the increases they claim are coming from the ongoing testing of all state prison inmates in Tennessee (which is a somewhat confined population). As mentioned earlier, the sharp spike in virus numbers due to prison testing has landed some Tennessee counties at or near the top of the national COVID-19 watch list for new cases.

The rise of COVID-19 cases is, not surprisingly, creating a lot of angst for those with loved ones behind bars. They say those with underlying conditions should be released early.

The concern grows as it appears a number of state inmates have been approved for parole but haven’t been released due to a technicality. Nashville State Senator Brenda Gilmore is demanding action and a prominent Nashville lawyer thinks a class-action lawsuit against the state might be in the offing.

Nashville is also closely watching its jail population as new cases have been detected this week while others have recovered.

Tennessee appears to be among the national leaders in testing, and according to Senator Lamar Alexander, another $155 million in federal funds for testing, are now on the way. The state is adding mobile testing units manned by the state’s National Guard. On a voluntary basis, all residents of public housing in Tennessee are being offered testing with the help of Tennessee National Guard members who are medically trained. The residents of public housing are considered more at risk and often have transportation issues to access help.

However, one news report says participation on the first day of testing was low.

Nashville continues to boost up its testing as well and needs 500 more volunteers to help. With the help of Meharry Medical College Metro has added mobile testing units targeted to give tests to those in high risk populations.

The Metro Health Department is handing out more masks today and Saturday made available by the state.

A MULTI-SIDED METRO PROPERTY TAX FIGHT FORMS

As Metro Councilmembers this week began virtual committee hearings to review Mayor John Cooper’s $2.44 billion city budget and 32% property tax increase, it is no surprise that many are looking for an alternative. But exactly what that might be appears to be up in the air.

It seems highly likely that At-Large Councilmember Bob Mendes will, for the third year in a row, present an alternative budget with a property tax hike. How much? That remains unclear. Here is what Mendes posted last weekend as he poured the voluminous Metro spending plan.

As chair of the Budget & Finance Committee, what Mendes suggests as an alternative budget and tax levy are bound to be a major focus of discussion for the Council’s debate. There could well be up to four alternative tax and budget plans. One is coming from conservative At-Large member Steve Glover. Indications are his proposal would involve a much lower property tax increase which Mayor Cooper claims would require Metro employee layoffs to deal with the devastating loss of city sales tax and other revenues resulting from the COVID-19 economic shutdown.

Glover told THE TENNESSEAN he is looking at a property tax hike of 20% or less. Two other Council alternatives are also mentioned in the paper’s article. One alternative appears to consider a property tax hike even larger than Mayor Cooper’s proposal, to fund pay raises for Metro teachers and other school employees.

Another tax proposal seeks a lower property tax increase using federal money to bridge the gap. However, right now, city officials say that is not permitted by regulations from Washington on how federal dollars can be spent.
Bob Mendes says he doesn’t want to discuss details of his alternative budget and tax plan until Metro finance officials have a chance to check his math to see if what he is proposing adds up.

Mendes shared more of his thoughts in accessing some of the other budget and tax alternatives being discussed.

After the Council finishes its budget review, the first time it has ever been done virtually, the public gets its chance. A first-ever virtual public hearing will be held during Council’s meeting on Tuesday June 2.

The public debate is already getting underway, with both proponents and opponents speaking out about what they think is best for Nashville’s future.

Mendes shared more of his thinking on Thursday indicating the next week’s Council session could see questions raised about a number of financial actions being requested by the Cooper. It appears the Council wants more input in these matters including how the Mayor wants to spend the $121 million in federal money Metro already has received and put in the bank for COVID-19 efforts.

Just how bad is Nashville’s economic shutdown impacting both businesses and government? A new study conducted by Harvard and Brown Universities finds spending in Nashville has fallen 46.3% compared to January levels. It is the worst decline of any metropolitan area in the nation!

It is not a plan resulting from the city’s revenue problems, but the Metro School Board is set to vote next Tuesday on whether to close and consolidate several under-utilized schools. The move would save the system $3.4 million which could help offset some of the cuts that seem likely to result in next year’s schools budget, even under Mayor Cooper’s tax and spending proposal. Many of the schools involved in the closures and consolidations are in the northern part of Davidson County.

Finally, one tax element Councilman Mendes may be at least considering is the Council passing a tax increase of the size requested by Mayor Cooper in the hopes the rate could be reduced and reset by the Council at a lower rate if Congress has lifted the restrictions on federal virus aid, allowing it to be used to make up for the lost tax revenue that evaporated when the virus struck and the economic shutdown ensued to combat it.

I am told it is legal to have an a revision in the property tax rate after it is set by the Council before July 1 (as required by law.) It would have to come before property tax bills are sent out to taxpayers in October. The Council would also likely have to hold several special meetings to approve the new tax levy number and revise the budget to include the new federal funds that would be available.

The Metro Trustee’s office is responsible for sending out tax bills. There is a new Trustee about to take office after the August election. She is former Metro Councilmember Erica Gilmore who defeated interim Trustee Parker Toler in the primary election back in May.

If this tax revision effort is attempted, it would be up to her office to be prepared to send out new property tax bills about a month or so after she takes office. I am told she would need any revised tax ley approved by September 1 so the correct bills will be ready to be sent to property owners.

Of course, this effort would ultimately depend on whether Congress even approves another virus relief bill and if it contains dollars for local governments that can be used to replace the loss of ongoing tax revenues. There is more discussion about how things stand about that in Washington later in this column.

A BIG STATE REVENUE CRUNCH BEGINS TO BECOME MORE APPARENT

Since the pandemic hit, and the economy began to shut down in response, we’ve talked several times about how not just Metro, but state government is experiencing a severe loss of tax revenues. That became even more apparent this week when figures were released on tax collections for the month of April. The numbers are almost $694 million less than the same month last year, an almost 40% drop!

The worst is likely still come as the numbers reported this week only represent transactions from the month of March. The economic shutdown began about halfway though that month. The shutdown continued, along with the revenue loss, during all of April. Those revenue numbers won’t be known until June, further complicating the job of the General Assembly. Lawmakers are set to come back into session June 1 to consider more cuts to balance, not only the state’s current budget which ends June 30, but also balance spending for the new fiscal year which begins July 1st. The early estimate is the state will see a revenue loss of as much as a $1 to $1.5 billion in FY21.

State officials rightly say that they face a major challenge, the likes of which they have not experienced in several years in dealing with this revenue crunch. However, they do have a sizable rainy day fund to dip into to cushion the blow and the state will receive some additional funds from businesses taxes whose deadline for payment have been delayed until later this year due to the virus.

Tennessee could also benefit from federal virus relief aid although it remains unclear if current funds already sent from Washington, or those additional monies being debated in Congress, can be used to backfill for the tax revenue losses.

If its OK to use federal funds, Governor Lee would like to use some of them towards offering grants to businesses hurt by the closure orders earlier put in place to fight the virus.

THE RELIEF IMPASSE CONTINUES IN WASHINGTON

Both houses of Congress remain deadlocked about what else to do about the coronavirus.

Democrats, who control the House of Representatives, plan to pass on Friday (today) another relief bill that at $3 trillion dollars, would almost as much combined, as all the other aid measures Congress has approved.

The House plan is dead in the water in the Senate and with President Trump, who still wants a payroll tax cut. But perhaps sensing growing pressure for some kind of action in the weeks to come, the Republican majority in the Senate has its own ideas about another relief effort.

Further strengthening the House argument for more action are comments this week from the Federal Reserve chairman saying the economic decline underway is “biggest shock to our economy in modern history”, adding that the damage could have long term effects on the economy without more federal action.

The pressure for additional federal action likely grew even stronger late in the week. The report Thursday, regarding applications for unemployment benefits show, that as of May 9, another 3 million people are asking for assistance. That means in the last seven weeks since the economic shutdown caused by the virus began, about 36.5 million people have requested unemployment aid.

Bringing that back to Tennessee, another 29,000 have applied for help, bringing the number of those applying since March 15 to over a half million residents of the state.

At the same time, there remain more than a few stories of people who have been trying for weeks to get unemployment help but cannot get a check. Even those with serious pre-existing conditions, who have received jobless benefits before, have had trouble getting help this time. One quest however seems headed towards a happy ending.

Others have not been so lucky even after weeks of calling and trying to get through the state’s still overwhelmed phone system. The inability for people across the country to get through to file unemployment applications is a reason the true number of people who have lost their jobs is much, much higher than presently estimated by just looking at the volume of these weekly unemployment application reports.

One Nashville lawmaker is spending hours every day to help citizens who are getting lost in the unemployment system shuffle.

State and local governments are also among the groups crying out for more federal help. The House bill sets aside $1 trillion to assist them. Some Republicans in the Senate are talking $500 billion. If the money is unencumbered with strings and red tape (as current federal virus funds have been) these dollars could be helpful to the state of Tennessee in particularly dealing with its unemployment trust fund which is being steadily depleted by the onslaught of unemployment benefits requests.

Metro Nashville clearly needs help. It does not have a rainy- day fund like the state. If federal funds become more readily available for use to make up for tax revenues lost due to the virus, those monies might be able to reduce the size of the proposed Metro property tax increase.

However, governors from both parties are concerned any additional federal virus relief efforts will continue to be bogged down in partisan politics, becoming a political football.

Late word from Washington on Friday about another virus relief bill is that it looks doubtful anything can pass both houses of Congress and be signed by the President before June.

ON THE CAMPAIGN TRAIL

Nashville physician Dr. Manny Sethi wants to be Tennessee’s next United States Senator, replacing Lamar Alexander when he retires at the end of his term early next year. But like all political candidates in this year of the virus, its hard to get the voters’ attention.

Facing former ambassador to Japan Bill Hagerty in the August Republican primary, Dr. Sethi is trying to reenergize his campaign by going statewide and campaigning in all 95 counties. It’s a tried and true Tennessee political tradition, even though candidates and their strategists know that, given Tennessee’s population patterns, a candidate can run a successful campaign targeting almost exclusively the more heavily populated counties in the state. But going to all 95 counties always sounds good.

Dr. Sethi is also starting his broadcast media efforts with a buy beginning next month from June 18- through July. He will be spending at least $130K with one Nashville station. The Hagerty campaign is gearing up on the air as well, but a little later. His TV buy of roughly $150,000 on one Nashville station is running from July 10- through election day, which in case you have forgotten, is the first Thursday in August.

Since we are talking about the 2020 election, here is an interesting presidential poll in a surrounding state. Georgia in recent years has been a deep red, reliable Republican voting state. In 2016, it voted for Donald Trump. But a new poll commissioned by THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION “pegged Democrat Joe Biden at 47% of support in the state and President Donald Trump with 46%. That is within the margin of error for the poll of 4 percentage points. A small number of voters – just 5% - said they were undecided and 2% declined to answer. In the race for one of Georgia’s U.S. Senate seats, incumbent David Perdue led Democratic frontrunner Jon Ossoff by a 43-41 margin, also within the margin of error. Libertarian Shane Hazel logged 7% of the vote and 8% were undecided.”

So color the Peach State a little more purple these days?

A growing concern in Tennessee and across the country is allowing an absolute right to vote absentee in Tennessee if a second wave of the virus returns before the November election. Some support the idea, but Governor Bill Lee and other Republicans who control the voting process in Tennessee do not seem to be on board.

DR. THOMAS SCHWARTZ ON INSIDE POLITICS WITH A WORLD VIEW ON THE VIRUS IMPACT

As the city, state, nation, and world begin to slowly reopen, but with the coronavirus still among us, what will be the new normal in international politics and foreign affairs?

One of the top experts in the country on that topic is Dr. Thomas Schwartz, a history and political science professor at Vanderbilt University.

Dr. Schwartz is our guest on INSIDE POLITICS this week.

We are always honored to have him join us.

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. on 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.

THE WEEKLY NUMBERS WHILE STILL MORE KINDNESS FLOWS

As of 11:00 a.m. CDT on Friday May 15, the virus numbers continue to rise.

THE WORLD
Total cases approaching 4.5 million (4,777,000-plus)
Active cases: over 2.5 million (over 2,567,000)
Recovered cases: over 1.6 million (1,606, 796)
Deaths: 303,089

THE NATION
Total Cases: 1,450, 136
Active cases: 1,110,250
Recovered cases: 253, 279
Deaths: 86,607

TENNESSEE
Numbers updated here daily at 2:00 p.m. CDT

Metro Nashville

Another one- day triple-digit (119) spike in cases reported Friday May 15as the city enters its first weekend in almost two months without a Safer at Home order in place.
From Metro Public Health:

‘Metro Public Health Department officials announced today a total number of 4,008 confirmed cases of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Nashville/Davidson County, an increase of 119 in the past 24 hours.

The confirmed cases range in age from 1 month to 99 years.

An additional death in Davidson County was reported in the past 24 hours – a 75-year-old woman. At this time, it is unknown if she had underlying health conditions.

A total of forty-three (43) people have died after a confirmed case of COVID-19. 2,734 individuals have recovered from the virus.

The MPHD COVID-19 Hotline received 185 calls on Thursday, May 14, 2020.

Total number of cases: 4,008

Cases reported in the past 24 hours: 119
Cases by sex
Male: 2,079
Female: 1,753
Unknown: 176

Total Cases by age
Unknown: 58
0-10 111
11-20 305
21-30 996
31-40 800
41-50 635
51-60 531
61-70 338
71-80 155
81+ 79

Total 4,008
Recovered 2,734
Deaths 43
Total active cases 1,231

Total number of tests administered Total positive results Total negative results Positive results as percentage of total
42,155 4,008 38,147 9.5%

Fortunately, kindness is everywhere this week… even sky high!

THE TENNESSEE NATIONAL GUARD SALUTES NASHVILLE’S AND TENNESSE’S FRONT LINE WORKERS
THE BLUE ANGELS HONOR NASHVILLE’S HEROES TOO
DANCING IS A WAY TO HELP SPECIAL EDUCATION STUDENTS
REACHING OUT TO THE IMMIGRANT COMMUNITY
Stay well! Stay safe!