Tennessee Gov. Lee: COVID-19 'can't shut our economy down for months on end'

Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / Tennessee Governor Bill Lee held a press briefing at the UTC University Center, concerning the COVID-19 pandemic, on April 3, 2020.

NASHVILLE - Gov. Bill Lee told Tennessee lawmakers Wednesday he plans to take measured steps to re-open parts of the economy sometime in May, saying the state "can't shut our economy down for months on end" because of the coronavirus.

"We believe there is a way to do that, and we're encouraged about the possibility," the Republican governor told lawmakers during a morning teleconference. "I feel strongly about that. I think we can do it. I think Tennessee can do it. I think we're in a place where we can begin to do it very shortly, and that's our strategy."

While thousands of Tennesseans have tested positive for the potentially deadly COVID-19, Lee said, "we're expanding capacity for future surges that may come down the road because as we take steps to open up our economy, we clearly have a risk there of an increase in COVID cases.

"The way that we can manage both those cases and the economy opening up is the way that we will do this right," Lee said. "That's when we know we are doing this right, is when we can manage both the disease spread and the economic recovery."

Earlier this week, Lee extended his current stay-at-home executive order, which had been scheduled to expire Tuesday, to April 30. It permits a wide array of "essential" businesses to operate but closed personal care enterprises such as barber shops, hair salons and more.

Acknowledging lawmakers have asked what re-opening will look like, Lee said, "we don't know what it's going to look like yet, except that we do know there are going to be definitive steps before an opening of this economy. It may include regional components. It may include industry-specific decisions. It may have guidance for essential businesses that are already operating."

The governor also emphasized he is "absolutely committed to returning our state to a place where we can have economic activity that keeps us in a place where people can work and make a living and return to their livelihoods - that we bring back a new normal to our state."

During his call, Lee also described to the 132 legislators the "devastating picture in Chattanooga" and across Hamilton, Bradley, Marion and Polk counties that were struck by at least one tornado late Sunday and early Monday morning, as well as Georgia and Alabama.

"That tornado did a significant amount of damage," Lee said. "Lives were lost. Those cities and regions across there, our hearts are with you. And the rest of us out there that are not affected in that region, we need to be praying for the leaders there, for those on this call who are leaders in that community, because they have a lot of work to do. And it comes on top of an existing crisis."

Two people in Hamilton County died as a result of the storm winds, while in Marion County a woman died after she was swept away by a raging stream.

Contact Andy Sher at [email protected]