The number of COVID-19 cases in Wilson County increased to 20 on Friday from 13 on Thursday while statewide the increase was to 1,203 from 957. One local plant shut down Friday when an employee tested positive for the disease.
ZF Active Safety and Electronics in Lebanon, formerly the TRW plant, sent its first shift home and canceled its second shift after the test results became known.
“We have closed down today to do a really deep clean,” said company spokesman Tony Sapienza from its U.S. headquarters in Michigan. “We are currently evaluating when we might reopen.”
Sapienza said the company was aware that some of its 300 employees might be worried about returning to work.
“We recognize people have concerns and we’ll work with them,” he said, adding “it’s a balance” between the need to keep the plant operating and the concerns of the employees.
Because the plant makes chassis and steering components for commercial and emergency vehicles, it’s a “critical” operation, Sapienza said.
With the release of the latest statewide figures, Gov. Bill Lee again appealed for residents to “do your part, stay apart.”
Speaking from Memphis, Lee said, “This is a very serious threat. Six Tennesseans have lost their lives and we expect there will be many, many more.”
The governor said his decision to not order a statewide shutdown was based on several factors, including the negative impact it would have on businesses and their employees and the fact that major population centers had already issued such orders.
“There’s a reason why the majority of states don’t have stay-at-home orders,” he said.
Lee said the state was rapidly ramping up its ability to test residents for COVID-19.
“The evidence from cities and countries is that those with the greatest level of testing had the most success flattening the curve,” he said.
As of late Friday, there were two testing locations in Wilson County — the Wilson County Health Department in Lebanon and the Vanderbilt Walk-in Clinic in Mt. Juliet.
State Health Department spokesman Bill Christian said, “We first encourage anyone with concerns about their health to contact their regular health care provider, who can assess their risk for COVID-19 and determine if they should be tested. Many health care providers can assess patients for COVID-19 and collect samples to submit for testing. People who don’t have insurance and have concerns they may have symptoms of COVID-19 can contact their county health department for consultation and to talk through potential options for assessment.”
He added, “Most people, particularly those with mild or no symptoms, do not need assessment for COVID-19. Most people have mild illness and are able to recover at home, and there is no treatment specifically approved for this virus.”
The economic impact of the pandemic became clear with the number of people filing new claims for unemployment benefits in the state spiking by the biggest weekly jump in history.
For the week ending last Friday, Tennesseans filed 39,096 initial claims for unemployment insurance benefits.
“We’re going from 250 to 300 claims a day being filed two weeks ago to already more than 7,000 claims coming in every day — it’s a massive increase and I’m afraid it’s going to continue for some time,” said Bill Fox, director for the Boyd Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Tennessee.
Nationwide, the U.S. Department of Labor reported a similar jump with nearly 3.3 million new unemployment claims filed last week and more expected to come this week.
“These latest unemployment claims are really just the first wave of bad numbers that are going to be coming in because of the impact of the coronavirus,” said Jeffrey M. Humphreys, director at the Center for Economic Growth at the University of Georgia. “We’ve experienced an unprecedented deliberate shutdown of the U.S. economy and that is costing millions of jobs nationwide.”
Humphreys said he expects the U.S. economy will decline by as much as 20% this spring and is likely to continue to contract this summer in what could be the biggest short-term drop in economic activity since the government has kept comparable data.
“But this is not like the Great Depression,” he said. “It’s more like a global snowstorm that shuts down the economy for an indefinite period. But once the storm or pandemic passes, I think we’ll see a relatively rapid recovery because there is nothing fundamentally wrong with the economy.”
As job losses mount, some economists say the nation’s unemployment rate could approach 13% by May. By comparison, the highest jobless rate during the Great Recession, which ended in 2009, was 10%.
The economic deterioration has been swift. Tennessee began 2020 with the lowest January jobless rate in modern history at only 3.3% and reported Thursday that the jobless rate last month was still at a historically low 3.4% rate. Employers across Tennessee added 4,800 jobs during February and added another 22,108 jobs over the past 12 months ahead of the shutdowns that began this month as schools closed, conventions were scrapped and ultimately non-essential businesses in many areas of the state were forced to close.
Many people who have lost jobs in recent weeks, though, have been unable to file for unemployment aid because state websites and phone systems have been overwhelmed by a crush of applicants and have frozen up.
The Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development said it is processing jobless claims as quickly as possible to determine eligibility and distribute benefit payments.
The maximum weekly unemployment benefit in Tennessee is $275 before the deduction of federal taxes. Claimants receive this benefit through a debit card or direct deposit to a bank account.
In Executive Order No. 15, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee temporarily suspended the state’s one-week waiting period to receive benefits. Typically, the state pays the first week of benefits after four consecutive weekly certifications. During this temporary suspension, the state will pay the first week of benefits as soon as an unemployment claim is approved.
Although Tennessee is speeding its payment of jobless benefits, the maximum amount paid to unemployed people who are seeking other work, $275, is the fifth lowest of all states.
Tribune News Service contributed to this report.
The stimulus bill approved by Congress would boost jobless benefits in all states by $600 a week and extend the period for collecting unemployment benefits from a maximum of 26 weeks up to 39 weeks.
To help handle the surge in new claims, the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development refocused its activity last week, shutting down public visits to its 23 local job centers and refocusing 200 workers to handling and processing the surge in jobless benefit claims.
Jeff McCord, commissioner for the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development, said the additional focus on processing claims, rather than job postings, assistance and counseling done at local sites, will be key as the virus hits both the physical and fiscal health of Tennessee. Workers in the department also are moving to work at home, he said.
“We are shifting resources to align with our greatest need,” McCord said. “The changes we are making will go a long way in keeping up with the demand created.”
Tribune News Service contributed to this report.