CORRECTION: This story was updated on Sunday, March 15, 2020 with the correct spelling of the Tennessee Lobbyists Association chairman's last name.
NASHVILLE — When the 132 members of the Tennessee Legislature return to the state Capitol for business on Monday, they'll find the government complex a near-ghost town as a result of coronavirus-driven health emergency edicts temporarily barring the general public from the Capitol and the Cordell Hull State Office Building.
Republican Gov. Bill Lee on late Friday issued the Capitol restrictions as part of a general emergency declaration he announced a day earlier allowing him to respond to the coronavirus outbreak. An hour later, Senate Speaker Randy McNally and House Speaker Cameron Sexton, both Republicans, issued a similar order temporarily closing off the Cordell Hull building where lawmakers have their offices, as well as committee and subcommittee hearing rooms.
"We will limit access to the Cordell Hull Building out of an abundance of caution," the speakers said in a joint statement. "Access is prohibited to everyone except elected members, staff and members of the media until further notice."
But the speakers stressed "the citizens of Tennessee will still be able to access the work they have elected us to do through the livestreaming services available on our website."
The General Assembly livestreams on its website not only House and Senate floor sessions but all committees and subcommittees.
As of Saturday, 32 Tennesseans, including one person announced in Hamilton County on Friday, had tested positive. More diagnoses are expected as testing becomes more widespread.
During each day of the annual session, the Capitol and Cordell Hull are typically filled with hundreds of people, from the elderly to babies, as constituents and others flood in either on tours or to observe and testify before committees. Sometimes they flood hallways and Capitol galleries to demonstrate on behalf of or against particular bills.
Various groups are routinely invited onto the chambers' floors as they are honored with resolutions.
A day before the decision, McNally told reporters that he was recommending the public "stay away and watch the proceedings on TV. And really the most effective thing they can do is contact their individual legislator [to tell them] how they feel on a bill."
"We don't vote on size of the group or what the crowd wants us to do," he said. "It's what we feel our individual constituents want us to do."
In recent weeks, some Tennessee Republican lawmakers have downplayed concerns about the coronavirus, with one as recently as Thursday in a tweet denouncing as "disheartening, sickening and absolutely pathetic the way our national media is promoting fear and sheer panic among the citizens of our nation. The disdain and distrust of the media right now is worse than I've ever seen at any point in our nation's history."
Then on Friday, President Donald Trump, who had previously downplayed concerns, declared a national emergency as the coronavirus pandemic continued to grow, freeing up huge amounts of federal dollars to combat it.
But in Tennessee, open government advocates, lobbyists and others are concerned about the general public not being allowed in as state lawmakers continue to meet, with a high priority on Lee's expected budget proposals to combat the virus here as well as to address deadly tornadoes that tore through Middle Tennessee earlier this month, killing 25 people and causing hundreds of millions of dollars in damage.
Deborah Fisher, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition of Open Government that includes news organizations among its members, tweeted out the Tennessee Constitution's Article II, Section 22. It states: "The doors of each House and of committees of the whole shall be kept open, unless when the business shall be such as ought to be kept secret."
"The governor has closed the Capitol and the Cordell Hull building, where the legislative committees meet, to the public through the end of the month," Fisher said in one of a series of tweets. "The constitution says the doors must be open to the public. Everyone is scrambling. Trying to do the right thing. This is important to remember."
Fisher told the Times Free Press on Saturday that "I don't think the rules of the House or Senate contain any guidance for meetings under these circumstances when they would be shutting the doors to the public. Live-streaming the committee meetings is always good, but it simply is not the same."
She said if lawmakers "called a timeout on all business except emergency matters, it would give them time to determine the rules in a situation like this and could help protect the trust and credibility of the General Assembly. We are in new territory. They are in new territory. Is there really a reason to rush on items that are not related to the emergency at hand?"
The decision is also impacting Tennessee's 400-plus registered lobbyists.
"They [lawmakers] are in a tough situation," said Steve Buttry, a former Republican representative now a registered lobbyist, about the legislature's role in responding to the coronavirus situation and trying to keep potential health issues related to large group gatherings at a minimum.
Buttry, now chairman of the Tennessee Lobbyists Association, noted that "as anybody who's been paying attention to the news lately, these cases continue to grow every day."
Still, he said, "all of us advocate on behalf of our clients for a living, and the situation is sort of on hold. The only thing we know now is we won't be able to do our jobs in person next week. And it appears it's going to be that way for the foreseeable future."
Being physically present at the Cordell Hull Building as well as the Capitol where the House and Senate chambers are located is "very much" important for the more than 400 lobbyists, Buttry said.
"That's what we do," he said. "In my opinion, we're covered by the First Amendment. Our clients hire us, our clients are the public. They hire us to express their First Amendment rights."
The situation "makes it maybe a little more challenging," Buttry said. "Maybe we have to use the phone a little more, maybe email a little more."
Spokespersons for McNally and Sexton did not respond Saturday to emailed questions about concerns being raised.
Contact Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.