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Tennessee preps to reopen, conducts more prison mass testing
Bill Lee part 423.jpg
Gov. Bill Lee

By KIMBERLEE KRUESI Associated Press

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee announced Monday that businesses across the majority of the state will begin reopening as early as next week.

The Republican governor says his mandatory safer-at-home order will expire on April 30, which will pave the way for 89 out of the state's 95 counties to begin opening businesses. 

However, Lee's announcement does not apply to the state's counties with the largest cities, including Davidson, Hamilton, Knox, Madison, Shelby and Sullivan counties — areas that are not overseen by Tennessee's Department of Health but have their own public health districts. 

 "While I am not extending the safer at home order past the end of April, we are working directly with our major metropolitan areas to ensure they are in a position to reopen as soon and safely as possible," Lee said.

Some businesses will be allowed to reopen as early as April 27, but it's unclear exactly which ones will be granted such clearance. Lee told reporters that such details would be finalized by his economy recovery team later this week. 

Most state parks will reopen on Friday.

"It will be phased, it will be smart and it will be strategic," Lee said, stressing that the state's economy cannot survive being locked down longterm.

Tennessee has seen nearly 324,000 claims for unemployment in the past weeks as a result of the virus forcing the closure of hundreds of business across the state. Over the weekend, a handful of protesters gathered in Nashville and Chattanooga to urge officials to reopen the economy. 

As of Monday, state officials said Tennessee had more than 7,200 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and at least 152 deaths.

Lee's order comes as his Department of Correction announced it would launch a third round of mass testing inside the state's prisons after 150 inmates tested positive for COVID-19 over the weekend.

The agency says 3,100 inmates were tested at Bledsoe County Correctional Complex, the Northwest Correctional Complex in Tiptonville, and the Turney Center Industrial Complex in Only. 

According to the agency, 424 inmates were tested at the Bledsoe County facility on Saturday, where 150 of those tested positive for coronavirus and then isolated from the rest of the prison population.

Overall, since April 4, more than 160 inmates have tested positive at the Bledsoe County facility — the highest yet compared to other facilities. As a result, all inmates at that facility are being tested for the virus.

"We're learning that our prison population has a higher asymptomatic trait than we thought," said Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey.

Meanwhile, Turney Center Industrial Complex has seen just five confirmed COVID-19 cases among its inmate population and Northwest Correctional Complex has seen two COVID-19 inmate cases. The Trousdale Turner Correctional Center has also seen two inmates test positive for the virus.

More than 11,000 Tennesseans received a free COVID-19 test regardless if they had any "traditional" symptoms.

The Tennessee National Guard put up more than 20 drive-thru testing sites on Saturday and 19 sites on Sunday — more than what the state originally planned.

More drive-thru testing sites will be available during the weekends of April 25-26 and May 2-3.

Coronavirus testing also has expanded in Shelby County, the state's largest in population. Sites have opened in the Memphis neighborhoods of Frayser and Hickory Hill after complaints by activists and elected officials that testing has been insufficient in predominantly black areas of the city. 

About 20,000 people have been tested so far in the county of about 935,000 people, Mayor Lee Harris said Monday. 

Meanwhile, Tennessee officials also recently announced that free child care is now available to essential workers during the coronavirus pandemic. 

The Tennessee Department of Human Services says the offer involves payment assistance and a network of temporary care locations to offer the free care through June 15. 

The department will arrange payments for care with licensed programs once workers are approved for the initiative. Eligible workers can apply online.

Essential workers with school-aged children can also register at one of the temporary and emergency child care locations set up by the YMCA and the Boys & Girls Clubs in Tennessee. Parents seeking care at the temporary locations do not need to apply with the state first. 

Eligible essential workers include employees of a health care entity, law enforcement, first responders, corrections officers, military, activated National Guard, human and social services workers, postal workers, transportation employees, restaurant workers or grocery workers.