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Several Tennessee House members choose to participate Thursday, March 19, 2020, from the gallery amid the coronavirus pandemic in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Jonathan Mattise)

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee signed off Friday on allowing local officials to meet electronically rather than in person to blunt the spread of the new coronavirus.

The governor's executive order requires that local governments meeting electronically have to make a reasonable effort to allow the public access to the meeting live. If that's not possible, they would have to make audio or video recordings available as quickly as possible and no later than two business days after any meeting.

The order — backed by the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government — is in place until May 18.

The governor's action came shortly before Nashville confirmed Tennessee's first coronavirus death, a 73-year-old man with underlying health conditions.

"We need to provide open government and at the same time provide logistics for these governments to meet in the midst of this crisis so they don't gather together in groups that create a public health hazard," Lee told reporters before he signed the order.

The Republican governor's administration was forced to step in to help local governments meet safely amid a global pandemic after the GOP-dominated Statehouse failed to do so before temporarily recessing Thursday.

Lawmakers had spent most of this week scrambling to approve a drastically scaled-back spending plan for the coming fiscal year so they could recess until June 1.

While members advanced a handful of other non-budget measures deemed "mission critical," disagreements swirled around how much tweaking the open meeting law needed to help cities and counties meet electronically.

Multiple versions surfaced, but ultimately, the House and Senate couldn't find a compromise.

Specifically, the Senate's version restricted local officials from conferencing in electronically for essential business that could not be "reasonably delayed."

Additionally, the Senate version required a governor-declared state of emergency to be in place if the public was not going to be given the option of attending. The House left that requirement out.

Lee has already issued several COVID-19 related executive orders targeting relief to small business and relaxing a wide-range of regulations in order to speed up emergency response to those affected by the virus.

On Friday, Lee said his daughter was among workers who lost jobs in a restaurant that closed. But he focused on the example of her two coworkers, a married couple with four children, who lost their jobs. He said the possibility of mandating businesses to close, which he has not required statewide so far, means eliminating paychecks. But he said he is trying to strike a balance during the crisis.

"I believe to the degree that we can curb behavior and change behavior and find responsible behavior taking place across our state, to the degree that we can do that without mandates, it's better for everyone," Lee said.

Meanwhile, as the number of confirmed cases jump across the state, cities like Nashville and Memphis have limited restaurants to take-out orders, drive-thru service, curbside pickup, and delivery service. Most have ordered gyms to close.

Lee has held off from enforcing any statewide mandates, but said his administration is launching an economic task force on ways to help reeling businesses and workers. He said he's seeking guidance from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services about possibly using Medicaid to cover coronavirus treatment for the uninsured.

For most people, the virus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For people with existing health problems and older adults, it can cause more severe illness requiring hospitalization.

The vast majority of people recover from the new virus. According to the World Health Organization, people with mild illness recover in about two weeks, while those with more severe illness may take three to six weeks to recover.

Tennessee has more than 260 confirmed cases as of Friday.

In Memphis, Shelby County Health Department Director Alisa Haushalter said Friday that there are 30 confirmed cases, up from 10 the day before. Cases have been spread by travelers, and in social groups and in the workplace, she said.

Shelby County Schools Superintendent Joris Ray said food preparations and community-wide food distribution have been suspended indefinitely after a central nutrition services employee tested positive for the virus.

Ray said the district has begun working to identify people the employee had been in contact with. In the interim, he asked for the help from the community, including food pantries, to feed children while schools are closed.

The Mid-South Food Bank said late Friday that it plans to increase its mobile distribution pantries in response to the school district's decision. The pantries provide frozen meat, bakery items and fresh produce, food bank president Cathy Pope said.

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Correspondent Adrian Sainz contributed to this report from Memphis.

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The Associated Press receives support for health and science coverage from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute's Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

 

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