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Local officials brace for latest COVID surge

As a new more contagious strain of COVID-19 rips through the US, concerns are being raised at every level of government about how best to tackle the surge.

Sounding the alarm over the Delta variant led several lawmakers to reverse course and urge their constituents to get vaccinated. Earlier this week, several members of Republican leadership in the Tennessee Senate signed a letter encouraging just that.

“Dear Tennesseans, although we have made progress, COVID-19 is not over,” began the letter, which was signed by 16 of 27 Republican senators.

It went on to say, “A strong majority of these cases are among those who are not vaccinated, and virtually all of those currently hospitalized with COVID-19 have not been vaccinated. We strongly urge Tennesseans who do not have a religious objection or a legitimate medical issue to get vaccinated.”

The state officials’ urgency comes against an ominous trend being observed around the state. On Monday alone, the state of Tennessee reported 3,574 new cases, with 67 of those coming in Wilson County.

State Sen. Mark Pody, R-Lebanon, was not among the letter’s signatories. On Wednesday, he said that it was because he had been out of town when the letter was drafted.

When asked if he agreed with the points made in the letter, he said he did to a certain extent, but that he might have tweaked the wording in some places.

He boiled it down to this, “I think that everyone who thinks it’s the right move should get vaccinated.”

The senator also said that he believes the vaccine should be easily accessible and free, going so far as to offer his assistance in scheduling an appointment for anyone unsure of how to do so. His number in Nashville is 615-741-2421.

Currently, the vaccine is being offered by the Tennessee Department of Health at no cost.

Pody urged anyone on the fence to speak to their physician before making a final decision.

While the senator is against instituting restrictions on customers shopping or groups gathering, he also does not think anyone should be ridiculed for what he called taking “personal accountability” in their lives, like wearing a mask indoors. He said it’s a person’s right to wear a mask as much as it is their right not to.

Pody declined to say whether he had received the vaccine, though he did say he’d had “multiple chances.”

Local schools sticking to the plan

In Wilson County, school officials and municipal leaders are approaching things optimistically, though they say it’s not time to let their guard down.

Wilson County Schools Director Jeff Luttrell said in an email Wednesday, “We understand what the numbers mean when it comes to our county and communities and we will continue to watch those very closely.”

During the July WCS Board of Education meeting, COVID-19 protocols and procedures were unanimously approved. As of Wednesday, Luttrell said no changes have been made, but that the school board and he would “continue to have responsible conversations about this moving forward.”

Gov. Bill Lee has said that Tennesseans should get vaccinated, but doesn’t think schools should follow new recommendations from U.S. pediatricians for students and staff to wear masks.

Meanwhile, the Center for Disease Control issued guidelines Tuesday to wear masks indoors even for those people who have already been vaccinated, which comes as a 180-degree turn from the agency’s position in May, when it announced vaccinated people could resume normal activities indoors without a mask.

Luttrell said that Wilson County will adhere to a policy more in line with the governor’s. “As of today, the wearing of masks is optional to start the new school year,” he said.

The director feels the school system is in a much stronger position than when the pandemic began. “The amount of precautionary knowledge that we’ve been able to gain over the past 17 months when it comes to COVID-19 has been enormous. What we’ve learned from the past will only help us as we move forward into the new school year.”

Luttrell also said that any discussions about implementing safety measures like social distancing or mask mandates would be held in a public setting and would only take place if needed. He added that if “any changes were required by the state, then we will comply,” and that if the school board wanted to re-examine the current protocols, then he would be “fully willing to listen to those concerns.”

“Collectively, and at the end of the day, the top goal is serving our students and families the best we can and that’s what we’ll always aim to do,” he said.

The Lebanon Special School District is sticking with a similar plan. LSSD Director Scott Benson said Wednesday that keeping masks optional for students will remain the protocol moving forward.

He lamented, “A month ago, as we were prepping, this was the furthest thing from our minds.”

The director pointed to the ‘’pretty normal summer’’ as reason for optimism but admitted that, “the last few weeks show the data changing.”

Reality of the COVID threat is not lost on Benson. “We discuss it daily. We are communicating with other districts daily.”

He said they are and will stay in steady contact with state and local health departments, while also regularly reviewing CDC guidelines.

Although masks are optional, Benson said other precautionary steps will be taken, like limiting visitors and enhancing sanitation protocols around the schools.

Students at Lebanon schools will return on Monday, but in a format Benson called transition days. The first three days of the school year will be partitioned into student groups, with each day seeing about a third of the overall students on campus, before opening back at full capacity on Thursday.

Lebanon Mayor Rick Bell said in an email that he was concerned to see the numbers go up, and much like Luttrell and Benson, said he would “listen to local and state health officials as they guide us over the coming days.”

Bell also said that his stepdaughter would be returning to classes in the fall and that he and his family are fully vaccinated, but that he, like Pody, believes residents should consult with their doctors and come to their own conclusion about vaccinations.

Wilson County Mayor Randall Hutto said Wednesday that he’s been vaccinated too, but agreed it’s a personal choice. Hutto said the best encouragement for what to do will come from peoples’ doctors and local health departments. “When those people speak, I think people listen.”

Hutto also agreed with Luttrell’s assessment of people’s knowledge in how to protect themselves from the virus. “We have been educated on what to do, safety procedures and precautions. I think we are all educated on how to address the issue if it shows back up,” he said.

Vanderbilt Wilson County Hospital sees uptickAccording to Vanderbilt Wilson County Hospital Director of Community Relations Traci Pope, the system is seeing “increased admissions with COVID positive patients throughout the Vanderbilt System.”

Pope said the hospital is “currently at approximately 30%” of what it experienced in the peak of last winter, adding that emergency room visits are up.

She attributed some of the increase to COVID patients, but said that visits are up in general.

Pope also encouraged everyone seeking additional resources and information to visit their website, vaccines.

Crew members from ADC Inc. in Lebanon prepare to pave a portion of the grounds at the Wilson County Ag Center on Wednesday to get ready for the Wilson County Fair-Tennessee State Fair, which begins on Aug. 12. This is the first year that Wilson County’s signature event will be combined with the state fair.

Pete Nanney, a member of the maintenance team at the Wilson County Ag Center, paints a ceramic cow in front of the Rabbit and Poultry Barn on Wednesday. Nanney said the cow had been painted several times in various fashions over the years, including in a football jersey, but this year they opted for a more traditional look.

Infrastructure deal: Senate ready to move ahead on $1T bill

WASHINGTON — Senate Republicans reached a deal with Democrats on Wednesday over major outstanding issues in a $1 trillion infrastructure package, ready to begin consideration of a key part of President Joe Biden’s agenda.

Lead GOP negotiator Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio made the announcement at the Capitol, flanked by four other Republican senators who have been in talks with Democrats and the White House on the bipartisan package.

“We now have an agreement on the major issues,” Portman said. “We are prepared to move forward.”

Asked about the agreement during a tour of a truck plant in Pennsylvania, Biden expressed approval.

“I feel confident about it,” he said.

For days, senators and the White House have worked to salvage the bipartisan deal, a key part of Biden’s agenda.

The outcome will set the stage for the next debate over Biden’s much more ambitious $3.5 trillion spending package, a strictly partisan pursuit of far-reaching programs and services including child care, tax breaks and health care that touch almost every corner of American life, and that Republicans strongly oppose.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer opened the Senate on Wednesday announcing a possible test vote on the bipartisan package in the evening. It will require 60 votes in the evenly split 50-50 Senate to proceed to consideration, meaning support from both parties. That would launch a potentially long process to consider the bill, and any possible amendments.

Republican senators met Wednesday morning with Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell, who appears to have given his nod to proceed. Portman said McConnell “all along has been encouraging our efforts.”

Sen. Krysten Sinema of Arizona, a lead Democratic negotiator, said she expected the package would have enough support to move forward.

Sinema said she spoke with Biden Wednesday and he was “very excited” to have an agreement.

Democrats, who have slim control of the House and Senate, face a timeline to act on what would be some of the most substantial pieces of legislation in years.

The bipartisan package includes about $600 billion in new spending on highways, bridges, transit, broadband, water systems and other public works projects.

Filling in the details has become a month-long exercise ever since the senators struck an agreement with Biden more than a month ago over the broad framework. There remains work to do as they draft the legislative text.

Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, who has been central to talks, said, “That doesn’t mean every ‘t’ is crossed, every ‘i’ dotted, but on the major issues we are there.”

Republican senators sparred at their closed-door lunch Tuesday, one side arguing against doing anything that would smooth the way for the Democrats’ broader bill, according to a person granted anonymity to discuss the private meeting. Others spoke in favor of the bipartisan package.

A recent poll from The Associated Press-NORC found 8 in 10 Americans favor some increased infrastructure spending.

House Democrats have their own transportation bill, which includes much more spending to address rail transit, electric vehicles and other strategies to counter climate change.

At a private meeting of House Democrats on Tuesday, Rep. Peter DeFazio of Oregon, the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, called the Senate’s bipartisan measure complete “crap,” according to two Democrats who attended the session and spoke on condition of anonymity to describe it.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi did not commit to supporting the bipartisan package until she sees the details, but said Wednesday she’s “rooting for it.”

Pelosi said, “I very much want it to pass.”

Senators in the bipartisan group have been huddling privately for weeks. The group includes 10 core negotiators, split evenly between Democrats and Republicans, but has swelled at times to 22.

Transit funding has remained a stubborn dispute, as Republican senators are wary of formalizing what has been a typical formula for the Highway Trust Fund allotting around 80% for highways and 20% for transit.

Most Republican senators come from rural states where highways dominate and public transit is scarce, while Democrats view transit as a priority for cities and a key to easing congesting and fighting climate change. Democrats don’t want to see the formula dip below its typical threshold.

Expanding access to broadband. which has become ever more vital for households during the coronavirus pandemic, sparked a new debate. Republicans pushed back against imposing regulations on internet service providers in a program that helps low-income people pay for service.

Sinema said transit and broadband were the remaining issues being finished up Wednesday.

Democrats also have been insisting on a prevailing-wage requirement, not just for existing public works programs but also for building new roads, bridges, broadband and other infrastructure, but it’s not clear that will make the final package.

Still unclear is how to pay for the bipartisan package after Democrats rejected a plan to bring in funds by hiking the gas tax drivers pay at the pump and Republicans dashed a plan to boost the IRS to go after tax scofflaws.

Funding could come from repurposing COVID relief aid, reversing a Trump-era pharmaceutical rebate and other streams. It’s possible the final deal could run into political trouble if it doesn’t pass muster as fully paid for when the Congressional Budget Office assesses the details.

Portman said the package will be “more than paid for.”

Meanwhile, Democrats are readying the broader $3.5 trillion package that is being considered under budget rules that allow passage with 51 senators in the split Senate, with Vice President Kamala Harris able to break a tie. It would be paid for by increasing the corporate tax rate and the tax rate on Americans earning more than $400,000 a year.

Mt. Juliet to charge for gym use

The Mt. Juliet Board of Commissioners approved an entry plan for the Mt. Juliet Community Center in an effort to restrict use to local residents.

Among the provisions of the plan are a requirement to show proof of Wilson County residency to qualify for membership and a new annual fee was established. The changes take effect Aug. 9.

City Manager Kenny Martin said the city has witnessed several disturbances at the community center’s basketball gym, including an armed incident on June 28. That incident prompted the Mt. Juliet Parks and Recreation Department to establish new rules.

“We had a lot of folks coming (from) outside of Wilson County that were both patronizing our gym and making our citizens feel secondary,” said Martin.

Parks Director Rocky Lee said that 50 to 70 people would be inside MJCC’s basketball gym every day, and that a third of those would be coming from nearby areas like Antioch and Hermitage. Lee said that forces Wilson County residents to sign a waiting list to gain access to the gym.

District 2 Commissioner Bill Trivett said the Parks and Recreation Board tried to make the plan as affordable as possible. Patrons will have two options: Pay an annual fee of $100 that is good for the entire family for a year; or pay a $20 registration fee and a $2 fee per entry. Because the changes go into effect mid-year, the membership fee and registration fee will both be half-off.

In other business, commissioners deferred final approve of rezoning and plans for the Golden Bear Commercial development at 10000 Lebanon Road.

Civil Site Design Group, a civil engineering company and Golden Bear Commercial’s developer, requested to defer the ordinance to the commission’s next meeting on August 9.

A convenience store/gas station, the project features a 9,600-square-foot building with 5,000 square feet identified for the convenience store and the remaining two lease spaces at 2,000 square feet each.

Access to the development from Golden Bear Gateway will be folded into the plan. Golden Bear Commercial’s site design also includes a stub along the eastern boundary of the gas station for future connectivity and eight fuel pumps along the Golden Bear Gateway frontage of the site.

In April, the Mt. Juliet Planning Commission forwarded a positive recommendation on Golden Bear Commercial’s rezoning to the Board of Commissioners; however, the BOC deferred on this ordinance three times prior to Monday’s meeting.

The commission also voted 4-1 to defer consideration of a ban on open burning in connection with clearing property for development. The rule would allow the use of air curtain burners.