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Tennessee must adapt quickly, openly

Johnson City Press • Mar 24, 2020 at 7:30 AM

Caution in the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is affecting practically every aspect of daily life. We will continue to have to adapt to this new normal for an indefinite amount of time. New, more creative coping mechanisms surely will be necessary the longer this goes on.

An overdue step was Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee’s executive order over the weekend. He closed bars and gyms; limited restaurant services to drive-thru, carryout and delivery; prohibited social gatherings larger than 10 people; and limited nursing home visitation to essential trips. Restaurants in Northeast Tennessee responded accordingly — some already had.

A large number of physicians argue that Lee’s order did not go far enough. He stopped short of issuing a “shelter at home” order as governors have done in California and other states with more widespread outbreaks. Such orders force all non-essential businesses to close or allow employees to work from home, while limiting personal trips to picking up groceries, going to the bank or receiving medical care.

You can expect more pressure on Lee to take a tougher tactic as Tennessee’s confirmed cases of COVID-19 rise. This situation will get tougher before it gets better, and Lee should be prepared to react decisively and quickly in this rapidly evolving situation.

Lee also issued an executive order last week allowing elected government bodies to meet without the direct presence of the public. Elected officials don’t have to be in the same room — they can meet electronically.

Under normal circumstances, this would be an abomination. Open access to government is a pillar of this republic. But these are not normal times, and the state must give governments the ability to conduct necessary business during this emergency while keeping officials as safe as possible.

Emphasis on the words “necessary” and “emergency.”

Thankfully, Lee’s order has a major stipulation. An electronic meeting can take place only if a governing body determines the meeting is necessary to “protect the health, safety, and welfare of Tennesseans in light of the COVID-19 outbreak.” Lee also required elected officials to provide live electronic public access — streaming video for example. Those who can’t — after reasonable effort — go live must make a clear audio or video recording available to the public within two days of the meeting.

The latter really should be a moot point. All a government needs for live access are decent mobile devices, an internet connection and a YouTube or Facebook account. Any governing body claiming members lack such ability is either in the dark ages or lying through its collective teeth.

Public officials must resist any urges to use Lee’s order to justify funny business and circumvent Tennessee’s Open Meetings Law. Such meetings should not be conducted in person or with routine items or surprise additions on the agenda. Per the governor’s order, these meetings must be absolutely necessary to keep things running and conducted exclusively electronically.

We also call on local governments to find ways to keep public records available during this emergency. Many local governments have closed their buildings — Johnson City closed City Hall on Monday — for walk-in business, making personal records inspections impossible.

Another electronic accommodation order, including well-advertised access points for records, is due.

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