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State working quickly to help thousands of unemployed, small businesses - Gov. Lee

In just two weeks, claims for unemployment jumped to more than 90,000, figures show. A new report comes out Thursday.

The state is boosting efforts to get unemployment benefits more quickly into the hands of jobless Tennesseans and small businesses gutted by forced closures due to COVID-19, Gov. Bill Lee said Tuesday in his daily briefing from Nashville.

"I want small business owners to know we know you've borne the brunt," he said. "We can assist you."

Hundreds of small businesses have been forced to close as part of an effort to halt the spread of the highly contagious virus. Also, unemployment claims have jumped to almost 95,000 in just two weeks and 250,000 in a three-week period, another sign of how violently the state economy was affected by government efforts to stop people from gathering in large groups and spreading the sickness.

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State Labor and Workforce Development Commissioner Jeff McCord said in the briefing the state was adding 50 people to help with the constant processing of unemployment claims that are coming in.

Workers also will be able to get an additional $600 weekly for a limited time as part of the huge $2.2 trillion federal aid package passed by Congress. That'll be on top of whatever weekly unemployment aid is available in Tennessee, McCord said.

Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation will be available once people file their initial unemployment claims through the state, McCord said. 

It will be awarded retroactively if people already have filed for unemployment as a result of the crisis, he said. The state will go back and identify those cases where people should get the onetime $600 payment.

Lee said he understood the urgent need to move quickly to help jobless Tennesseans. Federal forgivable loans also are being made available through the Small Business Administration to help small businesses in Tennessee, he said.

"We’re in unprecedented times. It is a very difficult time, but I encourage Tennesseans to take heart," he said.

On the health front, the governor said he remains encouraged by fresh data about positive cases in the state. Projected deaths in the state appear lower now than originally projected. Data, however, can change, he said.

Dr. Lisa Piercey, the state's health commissioner, said the state was reporting 4,138 positive cases, up over 300 from Monday. But she said the state also sharply boosted testing. Testing now stands at almost 53,000 she said.

"Quite frankly, that's remarkable," she said.

The state will soon be releasing case data that reflects race and ethnicity.

Also, she said, the state may by the end of the week release an age breakdown of those people who have died from COVID-19 effects. The toll on Tuesday was up to 72; it was 65 on Monday.

Davidson, Sumner, Hamilton and Shelby counties have seen the greatest number of fatalities from the virus, figures show.

Piercey said a small batch of new testing that gives results in five minutes has begun to circulate. She said the state just got such a batch. 

NBC Chicago reported Tuesday that Walgreens will use the tests at drive-thru locations in a handful of states including Tennessee with "hot spot markets." Specific locations haven't been released.

Walgreens, according to NBC Chicago, said the coronavirus test delivers positive results "in as little as five minutes" and negative results within 13 minutes.

Lee fielded one question about public complaints that golf courses have become crowded and aren't following guidelines for social distancing.

WBIR also has gotten complaints from the public about too many people out playing golf amid the crisis.

Lee was he was unaware of the matter but would look into it.

"We certainly will take that into account and make adjustments as necessary," he said.

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