Gov. Bill Lee on Monday issued a two-week statewide order closing non-essential businesses and telling Tennesseans to stay home in an effort to combat the spread of the coronavirus.
The “safer at home” order, filed Monday afternoon, enacts similar restrictions put in place by mayors in Nashville, Memphis, Knoxville and governors in at least 30 other states. In recent days, some smaller cities in Tennessee have also implemented such orders.
“This is not a mandated ‘shelter in place’ order, because it remains deeply important to me to protect personal liberties,” Lee said at a Monday afternoon news briefing.
The order takes effect at 11:59 p.m. Tuesday and lasts through April 14, during which time only essential businesses are to continue operating and residents are to stay home “as much as possible,” per Executive Order 22, which was filed Monday with the Tennessee Secretary of State’s office.
Executive Order 21 was also filed Monday, which specifically orders the temporary closure of salons, spas, concert venues, theaters and other indoor recreational facilities.
Lee held off on shutting down Tennessee for more than a week, insisting statewide orders are difficult to enforce and that he preferred to advise social distancing instead of mandating it. The governor cited Tennesseans’ willingness to do the right thing.
But desperate pleas from mayors and medical professionals have increased pressure on the governor to take more aggressive action.
Dr. Aaron Milstone, a Franklin critical care physician at the forefront of the campaign to pressure the governor, has said epidemiology models predict a statewide stay-at-home order could potentially save thousands of lives.
“The only tactic guaranteed to slow the spread of the virus and mitigate both the strain on our healthcare supplies and workers, while protecting lives is the stay at home order Governor Lee should have enacted over a week ago,” Milstone said in a statement.
As of Monday, state health officials had tallied 1,834 cases and 13 deaths in Tennessee as a result of the coronavirus, with some of the largest clusters in Nashville, Memphis and Williamson County. At least 148 people are hospitalized.
Milstone and other doctors have said that epidemiology modeling of the coronavirus outbreak suggests a full shelter-in-place order could potentially make a difference of tens of thousands of lives in Tennessee alone.
After Lee’s announcement Monday, Milstead said in a statement that the new order “doesn’t go far enough to save lives and keep Tennesseans in their homes
Executive order aimed at closing certain businesses, but still permits activities
While restaurants and bars were closed and restricted to dine-in service under a previous executive order —fitness centers also had closed under a Lee order — Lee’s decision Monday extends the closures to a large number of businesses.
Under the order, Tennesseans can continue to go out to obtain groceries, beverages, takeout food from restaurants and medical, household and automobile supplies.
Outdoor activities and sports are also still permitted if individuals follow social distancing guidelines “to the greatest extent possible.”
“Congregating or playing on playgrounds,” however, pose a particularly high risk of spreading the coronavirus and are not deemed essential, according to the order.
Leaving home to care for a friend or family member is also permitted, as is visiting a place of worship or attending a funeral or wedding.
The state does “strongly encourage” that gatherings for weddings and funerals be postponed or only attended by close family members.
Lee has continued to express concern over ‘balance’ between economy and health
During a news conference on March 20, Lee said he sought to strike a “tremendous balance” between protecting the public and the economy, insisting that if he ordered the closure of businesses he would be effectively “mandating the elimination of a paycheck” for many Tennesseans. Lee also questioned whether it is possible to enforce statewide stay-at-home orders, which at the time had been enacted only in California.
“We are never going to be able to mandate people’s behavior in their homes and in their yards and in their neighborhoods, in part because you never can enforce the behavior that you mandate,” Lee said at the time. “But nothing is ever off the table.”
Two days later, Lee issued an order closing gyms and forbidding dine-in services at restaurants and bars, but stopped short of telling Tennesseans to stay home or closing all non-essential businesses. At the time, Lee’s order stated specifically that it didn’t mandate sheltering in place.
Late last week, Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear warned residents not to visit Tennessee, citing Lee’s resistance to a statewide stay-at-home order, the absence of which allowed many businesses to remain open.
“If you are a Kentuckian living on that border, I need you to not go to Tennessee for anything other than work or helping a loved one or maybe the grocery, if it is there closer,” Beshear said Friday.
Mayors in Tennessee took action on their own
Starting in Nashville, and then extending to a handful of other cities like Memphis, Knoxville and Franklin, mayors across Tennessee have been forced to issue their own stay-at-home orders.
Nashville Mayor John Cooper on March 22 announced a “safer at home” order, closing all businesses but those deemed essential and warning residents not to leave their homes except for required errands or outdoor exercise.
Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland earlier this month said he had sought help from Lee and the Tennessee Department of Health, but has relied more on local hospital officials in making his decisions.
“Yes, it’s a global pandemic but it’s a localized effort, but each city can affect its own future,” Strickland said.
Mayors in the state’s largest cities, including Nashville, Memphis, Knoxville and Chattanooga, have in the last week stayed in constant contact.
While Chattanooga as of Sunday had not yet implemented a stay-at-home order, Mayor Andy Berke described on Wednesday being in the difficult place of having to make decisions with little data and guidance from the federal government outside of the daily public briefings.
In conversations with mayors, the governor maintained over the last week that he believed cities should be making their own decisions.
“The governor has said explicitly that he believes that different areas of our state need their own method of dealing with the virus,” Berke said Wednesday. “He has said that public hes said that to me privately. I am doing everything that I can to make the best decision for our community.”
In January, Forbes announced that Chattanooga would see the largest job growth this year of any city in the country.
“Instead, in March, I am dealing with business closures and scared and desperate owners and employees,” Berke said. “It’s incredibly difficult, and I promise that this is not where I expected to be.”
Berke said he is “scared and worried” for those local business owners while trying to lead on the public health front.
But Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs has explicitly taken issue with the top-down approach of shutting down commerce and activity, announcing on Friday that in a 48-hour span, local medical examiners had seen nine cases of suspected suicide, representing roughly 10% of all suicide cases in the county last year.
“That number is completely shocking and makes me wonder if what we are doing now is really the best approach,” Jacobs said in a statement. “We have to determine how we can respond to COVID-19 in a way that keeps our economy intact, keeps people employed and empowers them with a feeling of hope and optimism — not desperation and despair.”
Outside of the state’s larger cities, mayors had been calling for more and raising questions about the legal authority they had to act.
“I understand the predicament that the governor has outlined,” said Chaz Molder, the mayor of Columbia. “That he’s got to protect the livelihoods as much as lives. My personal belief is until we can make sure the lives are protected, the livelihoods won’t matter.”
Joel Ebert, Sam Hardiman and Tyler Whetstone contributed to this report.
Brett Kelman is the health care reporter for The Tennessean. He can be reached at 615-259-8287 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @brettkelman.
Natalie Allison can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @natalie_allison.
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