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Gov. Bill Lee declared the COVID-19 crisis over in Tennessee on Tuesday as he announced the end of statewide public health orders and ended county authority to issue mask mandates, saying the virus is now a “managed public health issue.”

COVID-19 is “no longer a statewide public health emergency,” Lee said in a statement announcing the end of the statewide orders. “As Tennesseans continue to get vaccinated, it’s time to lift remaining local restrictions, focus on economic recovery and get back to business in Tennessee.”

And as for COVID-19, he said “we have to learn to live with it just like we do any risk.”

As part of the announcement, Lee also signed executive order 80, which ends counties’ authority to mandate the use of face masks, requires local health departments to offer walk-up vaccine options and retires business operating guidelines outlined by the Tennessee Pledge.

The order is effective through May 31.

The message comes as the state faces a public more hesitant of the COVID-19 vaccine than the rest of the country as a whole. Tennessee sits in the bottom three for its percentage of adults with at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose, at 42.8%, compared to the national rate of 53.9%, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Lee said a marketing campaign to promote the new vaccines is coming soon, but he said it’s not underway yet because the vaccine has just become widely available in recent weeks.

In a press conference Tuesday afternoon, Tennessee Department of Health Commissioner Dr. Lisa Piercey said COVID-19 levels across the state are “steady to slightly declining” and that “we really haven’t seen a lot of variability in cases for about two months now.”

“We’ve seen a couple of little blips, and in fact over the last few days we’ve seen a little bit of a downturn,” Piercey said. “I don’t really get too worked up either way — high or low — because I think there’s going to be this range that cases stay in maybe for quite sometime, and that reminds me to tell you what this is eventually going to be, and I don’t know if this is going to be in six weeks or six months or when it’s going to happen, but eventually this pandemic is going to turn into what we call endemic which means it’s always kind of there.”

“It’s time for celebrations and weddings and conventions and concerts and parades and proms and everything in between, to happen without limits on gathering sizes or other arbitrary restrictions on those events,” Lee said at the news conference Tuesday.

Tennessee joins a number of states peeling away their remaining COVID-19 restrictions. At least six states — Alabama, Iowa, Mississippi, Montana, North Dakota and Texas — have lifted mask mandates, though some states never implemented them. In Texas, businesses reopened at 100% capacity last month.

Meanwhile, Nashville’s city-county government, which is one of six counties allowed to issue their own public health orders without the state’s permission, is keeping its indoor mask mandate for now.

Memphis’ legal department was looking at what effects Lee’s request could have on a mask requirement ordinance there, said Doug McGowen, the city’s chief operating officer and a member of the COVID-19 task force in Shelby County, which has a countywide mask mandate as well. McGowen said it could be a few weeks before the city would lift its mandate.

“It’s clear that in some communities, where they have a very high level of vaccination, that it’s probably reasonable for people to request that,” McGowen said during a Tuesday news conference. “But remember, our percentage is not as high as some other communities. So, we’re not there yet, to the point where it’s reasonable to lift a mask requirement.”

Nashville announced Tuesday that it will lift all other restrictions on capacity for businesses and gatherings starting May 14, saying that’s six weeks from when the vaccine became available to all adults in the city — the amount of time it takes for the slowest vaccine to kick in fully.

Knox County, which includes Knoxville, will let its mask requirement expire Tuesday night, Mayor Glenn Jacobs’ office said. The last day for the mandate in Hamilton County, which includes Chattanooga, is Wednesday.

After Lee’s announcement, some school districts, including Hamilton, clarified that they can and will keep requiring masks for now.

Throughout the pandemic, which has killed more than 12,100 people in Tennessee, Lee brushed aside pressure to implement a statewide mask mandate, but did leave open the option for individual counties. In 89 of the 95 counties, there have not been virus-related limits on businesses and social gatherings since last fall, when Lee lifted them.

Lee has also said Tennessee was among the last states to implement stay-at-home orders amid the virus last spring, and one of the first to reopen.

There were 268 new cases of COVID-19 reported per 100,000 people in Tennessee over the past two weeks, ranking 18th in the country, according to Johns Hopkins University researchers.

Lee said Tennessee will remain in a state of emergency for “deregulatory issues” with health care and due to federal funding requirements.

Lee even said he is setting aside the “Tennessee Pledge” — a set of state suggestions for precautions businesses could take during COVID-19.

“These guidelines will today be officially retired in order to send a clear message: that Tennesseans now know how to manage their own day-to-day operations without a government playbook, even if it was a voluntary one,” Lee said.

Staff writer Jonathan Roberts contributed to this story.


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The show goes on at Capitol Theatre

As the old saying goes, the show must go on. And now that the Capitol Theatre has officially been purchased, it will.

Robert Fury, a real estate investor who moved to Unicoi last May, bought the historic Erwin theater for $100,000 with plans to renovate it into a live music venue. Fury, Rhonda Williamson and Justin Valentine will serve as the venue’s management team.

“What we want to do is turn it into the best live music in the whole area, and we think we can pull really big acts, like Nashville-quality acts, here,” Fury said.

The Capitol Theatre opened in 1940, and served as a family-owned movie theater until the roof was damaged by heavy snowfall in December 2018. The cost of repairs to the roof were too high for the previous owner to repair, and so the theater closed its doors for good.

The cost of the necessary repairs are not lost on Fury, either.

“We actually knew that stuff before we even finalized the purchase, so this is gonna cost a lot of money,” said Fury. “This thing is gonna have to have sprinkler systems, it’s gonna have to be brought up to all current codes, electrical, plumbing, so it’s a lot of work and a lot of money.”

Fury said the people interested in buying the theater before him were quoted $150,000 to fix the roof, but based on his experience with flipping houses, he believes it can be repaired for less money. Fury said he is not sure how much in total it will cost to repair and renovate the theater, but that he’s willing to pay what it takes.

“We’re gonna aim for an end product that we all love, that Justin, me and my girlfriend (Rhonda) love, and that the city will love, and that’s what we’re gonna go for,” said Fury. “And it’s gonna take as much money as that takes to get us there.”

Fury said he plans to renovate the stage and add seating and a dance floor, while also creating a balcony space. On the second level of the building, he plans to create office space as well as an Airbnb for visitors to stay in.

“It’s gonna be a really awesome project, and it’s gonna be a lot of hard work and there’s gonna be a lot of mistakes being made,” he said.

Fury said he hopes to get local businesses to sponsor the project to help with the expected costs, and he hopes the public will want to help with the manpower.

“If anybody out there is willing to, or wants to, more accurately, if they want to help out, we would definitely take their time,” said Fury.

Fury hopes to hold shows in the Capitol Theatre as soon as October 2022, but he said that date is apt to change as he sees the full scope of the needs of the building during the repair and renovation process.

To keep up-to-date with the theater’s progress or for more information, follow it on Facebook at Erwin Capitol Theatre.


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Washington County commissioners get update on status of tax deals

Before voting to approve a payment-in-lieu-of-taxes deal that they hope will lure an international auto components manufacturer to Telford, Washington County commissioners heard a status report on three existing PILOT agreements.

The data shows how those firms — Koyo/JTEKT, Dentsply Sirona and Ebm-papst — are faring under the terms of those payment-in-lieu-of-taxes arrangements.

Commissioners voted 13 to 1 on Monday to sign a PILOT with an unnamed company, which is being called “Project Stamp,” that could result in 206 new jobs coming to the Washington County Industrial Park. Before they made that decision, County Attorney Allyson Wilkinson updated commissioners on the PILOTs the county is currently engaged in.

Wilkinson reminded commissioners that PILOTs are effectively agreements that allow the Washington County Industrial Development Board, with the authorization of the County Commission, to obtain ownership of industrial property under negotiated terms and exempt it from the county’s property tax levy for a specified period.

Koyo Bearings North America/JTEKT North American Corp.

Background: Koyo, now known as JTEKT, is a global leader in engineering and manufacturing automotive systems, bearings and high-performance machine tools. The company began its PILOT lease agreement at its location in the Washington County Industrial Park in Telford in November 2006.

Summary: The lease agreement provides for PILOTs on both real property and personal property beginning at 0% and rising to 10% annually until reaching 100%. The lease agreement also includes options for two qualified expansions on real property and personal property within 10 years of the date of the lease.

Benchmarks: The company has reported 100 full-time employees for each of its reporting periods since 2013. The current report shows an increase of 10 jobs from the preceding year, resulting in a 61% excess of its employment benchmark.

Tax Year 2020: Koyo is now paying 80% of ad valorem taxes on one parcel and 100% on another for a combined total of $54,635.

The company also paid a combined sum of $72,197 in personal property during the last tax year.

• Dentsply Sirona/JCM International Inc.

Background: Dentsply Sirona is the world’s largest manufacturer of professional dental products and technologies. The company operates a facility at 608 Rolling Hills Drive, Johnson City.

Summary: This PILOT includes a facility lease for land and building, as well as a tax agreement with Washington County. Rent payments under the facility lease began in June 2018 at $25,200. In June 2020, the sixth year of the lease, the payment increased to $49,200.

Benchmarks: The PILOT calls for 171 full-time employees and $13.278 million in capital investment. The company received an extension from the county IDB on its job creation and investment reporting requirements. Dentsply cited the “unforeseeable circumstances of the global COVID-19 pandemic” on the dental industry as a reason to move those deadlines to this spring.

Wilkinson also told commissioners that Tennessee law recognizes “Force Majeure” as a legal defense to performance under a contract.

• Ebm-papst

Background: Ebm-papst is a German manufacturer of engineered automotive air movement products. The company entered into a lease agreement on Dec. 19, 2019.

Summary: The company is now operating a leased facility at 611 Wesinpar Drive, Johnson City. The Ebm-papst lease is for a three-year term with two one-year extension options. The equipment lease includes an abatement of 100% of the ad valorem personal property tax on equipment for three years.

Benchmarks: Ebm-papst is required to begin construction of a 110,000-square-foot building on a 30-acre site in the Washington County Industrial Park by Dec. 31, 2023. It is required to make a capital investment of $37.2 million

Tax Year 2020: In year one of the three-year tax abatement period of the PILOT, the county abated $23,130 of the company’s $1,029,305 personal property taxes.


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City: West Walnut rehab won't burden Tree Streets with traffic

With West Walnut Street getting ready for some major upgrades, residents of Johnson City’s Tree Streets neighborhood are excited.

But they remain mindful of any potential impact on traffic and pedestrians.

Sam Pettyjohn is the head of the traffic committee for the Tree Streets neighborhood. He wants to be sure the city maximizes the amount of safe pedestrian access to and from the neighborhood, including crossings at University Parkway to East Tennessee State University.

Although the crossing at West Walnut Street will be eliminated, Johnson City Public Works Director Phil Pindzola said pedestrians will be able to cross University Parkway at a new traffic signal to be installed at West Pine Street.

Left-hand turns from West Walnut Street to University Parkway will be blocked by a median running up University.

To discourage motorists from instead traveling through the Tree Streets neighborhood to take a left from West Maple Street, the city plans to extend the median past Maple Street’s intersection with University, thereby blocking the turn.

A two-way extension of Cherokee Street, which the city plans to run through the current Harman Ice & Cold Storage property at 724 W. Walnut St., will connect West Walnut with State of Franklin Road, serving as an outlet for traffic.

This will address a concern that residents raised during public meetings about the project in late 2019 and early 2020. They feared closing left-hand turns at the West Walnut and University intersection would divert traffic to West Maple Street.

“We really don’t anticipate much additional traffic feeding into the neighborhood and trying to exit,” Pindzola said.

Pettyjohn is optimistic about the city’s plans to stop traffic diversion into the Tree Streets.

“I think anything they can do to limit the traffic in the neighborhood would be great, but I don’t foresee us having a major influx of traffic if they’re (the city) taking some steps to protect us,” Pettyjohn said.

As Walnut expands, Pettyjohn said he is concerned about parking overflowing into the neighborhood, especially on nights and weekends.

“I lived in a major city before we moved here, and that definitely was an issue when an area got a large commercial development,” Pettyjohn said.

Pindzola said businesses in Johnson City oftentimes provide parking to a greater degree than what city code requires. The Mall at Johnson City, for example, and other large retailers tend to put in seven parking spots for every 1,000 feet of retail. City code, Pindzola said, calls for about 4.5 spaces per 1,000 feet.

“The tenants desire spaces more so than even our own code,” he said.

The city anticipates new businesses on West Walnut will try to establish their own parking, but if development reaches full bore, Pindzola said, there could be a need in the future for public parking.

Thinking motorists will cut through the neighborhood as traffic increases on West Walnut, Pettyjohn would also like to see additional traffic calming measures on streets that run perpendicular to West Walnut, such as Boyd or Cherokee.

The city has conducted a series of projections to assess potential traffic flow, and Pindzola said he doesn’t expect that will be a problem for residents. But, if there is a need to provide additional traffic control in the neighborhood, the city isn’t opposed to that.

“If things do change and we have to address that, we will,” he said.

Too fast, too furious?

There are also ongoing concerns about traffic speed in parts of the Tree Streets.

“If there is traffic calming on West Maple Street, I see no evidence of it,” said Andrew Dunn, who lives on the street’s 800 block. “College students late for class have been speeding down this corridor for years.”

The city currently has traffic circles installed at intersections along West Maple Street, which are designed to force vehicles to slow down. At this time, the city said, there aren’t any further traffic control measures planned for the road.

No one in the neighborhood is against progress or development, Dunn said, but this is a safety issue.

“I have a toddler,” he said. “There are children all over this block. I’d prefer to put a speed bump in the ground than a kid.”

If there’s concern about speed on West Maple Street, Pindzola said, residents can petition the city to put in traffic calming measures.

With a median along University Parkway, Pindzola said he doesn’t think it will be necessary to put speed bumps on West Maple Street’s 800 block, noting that there will likely be less traffic on the road.


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