Tennessee reports first COVID-19 death

Associated Press • Mar 21, 2020 at 1:16 AM

NASHVILLE — A 73-year-old man in Nashville with underlying health conditions became Tennessee’s first fatality linked to the new coronavirus, authorities said Friday.

“This is a tragic loss of life, and we extend our heartfelt condolences with the family,” Nashville Mayor John Cooper said in confirming the first virus-related death in the state.

Tennessee had more than 260 confirmed cases as of Friday as the state confronted the global pandemic that is reshaping American life.

In a sign of the times, Elvis Presley’s Graceland is temporarily closing because of the outbreak.

The Memphis-based tourist attraction announced on its website Friday that tours of Presley’s former home-turned-museum had been called off.

The tourist attraction devoted to the late singer Presley, who died in Memphis in 1977 at age 42, draws about 500,000 people every year.

In other developments Friday, Gov. Bill Lee took action to allow local officials to meet electronically rather than in person to blunt the spread of the coronavirus.

Lee’s executive order requires that local governments meeting electronically make a reasonable effort to allow public access to the meeting live. If that’s not possible, they would have to make audio or video recordings available as quickly as possible and no later than two business days after meeting.

The order — backed by the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government — runs until May 18.

“We need to provide open government and at the same time provide logistics for these governments to meet in the midst of this crisis so they don’t gather together in groups that create a public health hazard,” Lee told reporters before signing the order.

The Republican governor’s administration was forced to step in to help local governments meet safely amid a global pandemic after the GOP-dominated Statehouse failed to do so before temporarily recessing Thursday.

Lawmakers had spent most of this week scrambling to approve a drastically scaled-back spending plan for the coming fiscal year so they could recess until June 1. While members advanced a handful of other non-budget measures deemed “mission critical,” disagreements swirled around how much tweaking the open meeting law needed to help cities and counties meet electronically.

Multiple versions surfaced, but ultimately, the House and Senate couldn’t find a compromise.

Lee already has issued several COVID-19 related executive orders targeting relief to small business and relaxing a wide-range of regulations in order to speed up emergency response to those affected by the virus.

On Friday, Lee said his daughter was among workers who lost their jobs in a restaurant that closed. But he focused on the example of her two co-workers, a married couple with four children, who lost their jobs. He said the possibility of mandating businesses to close, which he has not required statewide so far, means eliminating paychecks. But he said he is trying to strike a balance during the crisis.

“I believe to the degree that we can curb behavior and change behavior and find responsible behavior taking place across our state, to the degree that we can do that without mandates, it’s better for everyone,” Lee said.

Meanwhile, cities like Nashville and Memphis have limited restaurants to take-out orders, drive-thru service, curbside pickup and delivery service. Most have ordered gyms to close.

Lee has held off from enforcing any statewide mandates, but said his administration is launching an economic task force on ways to help reeling businesses and workers. He said he’s seeking guidance from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services about possibly using Medicaid to cover coronavirus treatment for the uninsured.

For most people, the virus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For people with existing health problems and older adults, it can cause more severe illness requiring hospitalization.

The vast majority of people recover from the new virus. According to the World Health Organization, people with mild illness recover in about two weeks, while those with more severe illness may take three to six weeks to recover.

In Memphis, Shelby County Health Department Director Alisa Haushalter said Friday that there were 30 confirmed cases, up from 10 the day before. Cases have been spread by travelers as well as in social groups and the workplace, she said.

The Mid-South Food Bank said late Friday that it plans to increase its mobile distribution pantries in response to the school district’s decision. The pantries provide frozen meat, bakery items and fresh produce, food bank president Cathy Pope said.

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