Tennessee House Democrats blast Gov. Lee over plans to let stay-at-home COVID-19 order expire

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

NASHVILLE - Tennessee House Democrats said Tuesday they now have "zero confidence" in Gov. Bill Lee's ability to lead after the Republican's decision to let his stay-at-home coronavirus order expire April 30.

Lee's planned "reboot" of the economy "is putting the lives of our loved ones and Tennesseans at risk," Democratic Caucus members said in a statement.

Democrats that, although they "fully" back getting Tennesseans back to work, "it needs to be done in a manner that protects the lives of residents during this unprecedented humanitarian crisis."

Right now, Democrats say, the number of positive cases of COVID-19 is still increasing in Tennessee.

Noting that Tennessee still has personal protection equipment shortages as well as "insufficient and incomplete testing, and [has] not had a comprehensive plan for contact tracing laid out to the public," Democrats also said "the process for getting Tennesseans unemployment and financially supporting small businesses has been a complete failure.

"In light of this, we ask: How can we trust him to handle reopening the state?" they said in their statement, which was expected to be followed up with news conferences later Tuesday.

Spokespeople for Lee had no immediate comment.

Lee announced Monday that he will not renew his executive order directing Tennesseans to remain largely at home and closing a number of businesses, including personal care services such as barber and beauty shops as well as nail salons.

The COVID-19 pandemic had resulted in 7,238 positive tests as of Monday among an estimated 100,000 Tennesseans tested screened. The state was officially attributing 152 deaths to the virus.

At the same time, unemployment in Tennessee and other states has soared. Lee has also come under pressure from fellow Republicans, particularly in the House, as well as from President Donald Trump, who want the economy to reopen.

Speaking with Tennessee reporters on Monday, Lee said ,"we are working round the clock to be certain that some business will be able to open as soon as Monday, April 27. We will be outlining the measures in those particular businesses in the next couple of days."

The governor also said, "it is our firm intent that by May 1, the end of next week, the vast majority of closed businesses in 89 Tennessee counties will be allowed to reopen."

The six urban counties, including Hamilton County, with their own locally run health departments are not covered by the order's lapse. But Lee said, "we'll continue to work with them as they develop their own plans to reopen. Shelby, Madison, Davidson, Knox, Hamilton, Sullivan - and we want to be supportive of them as they develop their own plans."

But Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke said following Lee's announcement the city will not pledge to "re-open" by the end of April. The mayor said his existing executive orders to curtail sthe pread of COVID-19 by restricting businesses and social gatherings will only be lifted when epidemiology and testing numbers indicate it is safe to do so, rather than pledging to move on what he called an "arbitrary" re-opening date.

"I wish that we were able to be much more in line with each other, but nevertheless, we're going to do what's best for our community and we're going to look at the numbers," Berke said. "I promise you, nothing would make me happier than to know that we had contained the virus as much as possible and that we could open things up but we also understand that there has been a testing lag and we have to take a look at that."

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com. Follow on Twitter @AndySher1.

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