Gov. Lee issues order to Tennesseans to stay home during COVID-19 outbreak

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee delivers his State of the State Address in the House Chamber, Monday, Feb. 3, 2020, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee delivers his State of the State Address in the House Chamber, Monday, Feb. 3, 2020, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

NASHVILLE - Gov. Bill Lee on Thursday ordered Tennesseans to stay at home unless they are engaged in "essential activities or essential services" until at least April 14 as he and officials prepare for an expected surge of new coronavirus infections and potentially thousands of hospitalizations later this month.

"We believe the intent of this order is clear," said the Republican during a conference call with reporters. "We need all Tennessee who can to stay at home."

With latest projections indicating the COVID-19 surge will hit Tennessee between April 19-21, the state is now racing forward in a furious effort with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to re-fashion and equip arenas and convention centers with medical equipment and 7,000 beds to met the surge.

That includes the Chattanooga Convention Center.

Local responses

"I fully support Gov. Lee's decision requiring all citizens to remain at home unless they are carrying out essential activities as we continue working together to further mitigate the spread of Covid-19 in Tennessee. We have been, and we will remain flexible as we continue to receive additional data and input from medical experts as we fight to reduce the projected strain on our health care system, and keep our citizens, their families and communities across this state safe. A healthy economy starts with having healthy Tennesseans."- Tennessee House Speaker Cameron Sexton"As the peak of the COVID crisis approaches, it is more important than ever that we flatten the curve and prevent a run on needed resources. Governor Lee has consistently been committed to a data-focused approach and he has proven it again today. The numbers don't lie and it is clear at this moment a stronger mandate is needed. I appreciate Governor Lee's ability to adapt to this fluid situation. He is doing everything in his power to both save lives and minimize economic disruption. I applaud his efforts. I support this order. And I implore all Tennesseans to stay at home and stay apart."- Lt. Governor Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge)"This action was long overdue but it is the right thing to do and I'm glad that he is doing it. Now we need to work on a coordinated plan that expands testing across the state, provides adequate personal, protective gear for our health care workers and addresses the financial crisis facing many Tennesseans."- House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Stewart

The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Tennessee increased to 2,845 by about 3:00 p.m. EDT Thursday, up from Wednesday's total of 2,685, according to the Tennessee Department of Health's daily virus update. There have been 32 deaths from the virus statewide.

Hamilton County has 52 confirmed cases and has reported 3 deaths related to COVID-19, including the death of a child under five years old, according to the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department Wednesday. The state reports 61 cases in Hamilton County as of Thursday.

Lee's new directive supplements his "safer at home" order he issued only on Monday. Lee said it was because state Transportation Department traffic usage data as well as data from Unacast, a tech firm that analyzed anonymous cell phone usage in 50 states, showed a substantial uptick in Tennesseans activity in the last two to three days after a prior drop.

Unacast gave Tennessee a "D" letter grade, one of a handful of states in the U.S. to get that.

Parts of his order reflect his earlier "Safer at Home" order issued just Monday which Tennessee physicians said doesn't go nearly far enough.

Lee acknowledged that "while many Tennesseans have made good faith efforts, there's clear evidence that some citizens are beginning to disregard safer at home measures. It's dangerous, it's unacceptable and it's a threat to lives in our community."

The governor's latest order, Executive Order 23 is a follow up to his Executive Order 22 on "safer at home." The new order allows Tennesseans to go engage in activities such as food shopping, fueling up their vehicles and some type services. Restaurants and bars now closed to the public will remain so but still allowed to offer take out and delivery services. And some public areas such as golf courses and parks will remain open if cities allow that.

In the city of Chattanooga, Mayor Andy Berke on Thursday issued a shelter-in-place order which goes further than the governor.

The Tennessee Medical Association, which had many of its physician members signing the stay-at-home petition, said in a statement that appreciates and "applauds Governor Lee's Stay at Home order issued today. We all understand and recognize the gravity of this decision and the impact on our state. We are grateful that the Governor has made the tough decision that we believe is the right strategy to protect our citizens.

"Staying at home is our best weapon against COVID-19, and with cases starting to rise more rapidly, implementation now is Tennessee's best chance to return to business as usual as quickly as possible," the group said.

Lee's order also continues the closure of personal care services from a previous executive order which impacts businesses such as hair and nail salons. It does not impact "essential" businesses such as grocery stores, health care facilites and gas stations.

And the governor's office has provided additional guidance to local police officials on enforcement.

"It's actually giving the authority to individual law enforcement agencies to enforce this in their own way," Lee said. "We think that's the best way for it handled. Different communities are different, different enforcement teams are avail for different areas. So we gave them clear direction that enforcement was appropriate and that is something we expect to happen if companies don't ultimately comply."

The governor has come under heavy criticism in recent days from Tennessee physicians, some 2,000 of whom have signed a petition calling on Lee to implement a "shelter in place" order as a number of states have done.

On Thursday, former U.S. Senate Majority Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican and physician, on Thursday signed the petition which some 2,000 doctors and thousands of others have already signed.

Lee said the most recent data as well as conversations he's had with medical and public health experts led him to issue the new directive.

"I've said all along I'm deeply grateful for the medical community and the role that they're' playing, especially right now, many of them are putting their lives on the front lines in figting this," Lee said. "Their opinions certainly do influence and are very important."

Lee said he has consulted with a number of medical experts, including at the Cleveland Clinic. Regarding Frist, Lee said the former senator and he "have been talking for weeks regularly about the approaches we're taking, the numbers we see, the direction we should be taking. I absolutely put value and input from our medical community and our public health officials who I've consulted with as well.

Contact Andy Sher at or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.