NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Gov. Bill Lee on Friday promised business leaders that he would send the National Guard to help their companies with COVID-19 testing should they ask for it.
Lee made the announcement while speaking on a livestream for a Tennessee Chamber of Commerce and Industry event, where the Republican touted the state’s high testing rate while repeatedly pointing out that Tennessee was one of the first states in the country to reopen during the coronavirus outbreak.
The event was not included on Lee’s weekly public schedule.
During the middle of his remarks, Lee urged businesses to “engage in testing” as Tennessee continues to lift restrictions that were implemented to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
“We will have the National Guard show up at your place and do testing with large sections of your employees,” Lee said. “It’s not only important for your employees to feel safe, but for your customers to feel safe and for Tennessee to continue to have a very good picture of the state of the virus in our general population and that can come from the private sector.”
It is unclear if businesses are already requesting and receiving testing support from the National Guard. Lee’s spokesman did not immediately return a request for comment.
Lee also said he wants to help protect businesses from lawsuits over the pandemic, pointing to his work about nine years ago leading an advocacy group that supported former GOP Gov. Bill Haslam’s tort reform agenda.
“I’ve had a longstanding belief that businesses need to be protected from frivolous and inappropriate litigation that ties them up and we want to do that certainly here,” Lee said.
Also Friday, Lee signed a new executive order allowing bars, night clubs and other limited service restaurants to reopen across most of Tennessee as long as they only serve customers at tables and follow other social distancing guidelines. Such establishment may continue carry-out and delivery service for food or drinks.
As of Friday, the state has confirmed more than 19,300 COVID-19 cases in the outbreak, including 315 deaths.
Last month, Lee began pushing to expand testing to any Tennessean regardless of whether they show traditional COVID-19 symptom when he began reopening most of the state.
Since then, he’s also required testing to be conducted on all of the residents and staff at all of the state’s 700 nursing homes, as well as require testing at all of the state’s prisons.
As of this week, 45% of nursing homes had completed testing at their facilities.
At the same time, Tennessee is currently experiencing its highest monthly unemployment rate due to the coronavirus pandemic. According to the Department of Labor & Workforce Development, the preliminary seasonally adjusted unemployment rate for April was 14.7%.
As a result, more than a half-million jobless claims have been filed.
Meanwhile, in Memphis on Friday, Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris said COVID-19 testing is scheduled to increase at the county penal farm starting June 8. More than 190 cases have been reported at the Shelby County Jail, which is separate from the penal farm, the county’s prison.
In other virus-related news, Tennessee officials are extending free pandemic child care for essential workers until mid-August, while letting more categories of workers qualify for the program.
The Tennessee Department of Human Services says the expansion covers essential workers in the financial, religious, utility and hotel industries, among others.
The offer involves payment assistance and a network of temporary care locations.
Adrian Sainz in Memphis contributed to this report.
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