Gov. Lee issues statewide order closing 'non-essential' businesses, tells Tennesseans to stay home during COVID-19 crisis

Staff file photo by C.B. Schmelter / Gov. Bill Lee speaks at Chattanooga's Volkswagen assembly plant last October. On Sunday, Lee issued an executive order that government bodies must make reasonable efforts to conduct their business meetings online, preferably livestreamed so the public can stay informed and involved.

NASHVILLE - Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee on Monday announced two new executive orders that step up the state's response to the coronavirus pandemic by ordering closures of "non-essential" businesses while also strongly urging state residents to remain largely at home unless necessary.

In doing so, the Republican governor follows the lead of Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke and counterparts in Nashville, Memphis and Knoxville, as well as some 25 other state governors in issuing "safer at home" orders. Those vary widely.

Lee's action comes at the urging of frantic physicians who are battling potential COVID-19 cases as Tennessee's rate of infection continues to climb. The infection rate rose substantially over the week during a COVID-19 outbreak at a nursing home in Sumner County. The Associated Press reported the state has confirmed 74 residents tested positive and were transported to a hospital for treatment and 33 workers with confirmed cases were confined to their homes. That helped raise the official count of people testing positive in the COVID-19 epidemic to 1,834 with 13 deaths.

In Hamilton County, 39 people have tested positive with three deaths, although local health officials said one of the deaths involved a person from out of state.

Lee said his order is "not a mandated shelter in place order" but rather a "strong urging of Tennesseans to stay home if at all possible."

"We need you to stay home where at all possible," Lee said during an afternoon teleconference. "Your habits and routines will make the difference."

But Tennessee House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Stewart of Nashville said Lee's orders are not strong enough and do not adequately protect Tennesseans.

"The governor's plan does not go far enough," Stewart said. "He should be listening to the thousands of doctors that have told him that what Tennessee needs is a shelter-in-place order and nothing less."

About 2,000 physicians signed an online petition asking Lee to consider a mandatory shelter-in-place order.

Stewart also said "the fact that on the Health Department's website Hamilton County is still listed as having no testing center shows the governor's team is still way behind."

The Republican governor's directives come in Executive Orders Nos. 21 and 22.

Pressed by reporters during a teleconference call about the stay-at-home issue, Lee emphasized "this is not a mandate for people to 'shelter in place.'"

"This is an urging of citizens to not utilize non-essential businesses and the reason is it is urging them to stay in place and change behavior to not utilize those businesses by closing those businesses," Lee said.

In his Executive Order 21, Lee's list of excluded "essential businesses" that can remain open cover a wide range of commercial and nonprofit activities. It includes health care, grocery stores, pharmacies, doctors' offices, restaurant take-out orders and human services.

But businesses or organizations that perform close-contact personal services shall not be open to members of the public.

That includes a large array of businesses including barber shops, hair salons, waxing salons, threading salons, nail salons or spas, spas providing body treatments, tattoo services, tanning salons and massage services.

It also directs entertainment and recreational gathering venues to shut down, with the list including night clubs, bowling alleys, arcades, concert venues, theaters, auditoriums and performing arts centers.

"It's a two-component executive order," Lee said. "I think it sends a strong message to Tennesseans. It certainly changes the environment in which they will operate in every county across our state. And it will strengthen the social distancing across our state, which we all know will help slow the spread."

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, the Republican Senate speaker, joined with fellow Republican Lee.

"This threat changes from day-to-day, hour-to-hour and minute-to-minute," McNally said. "I appreciate Gov. Lee's ability to remain data-focused and flexible. Today's order is a big step but a needed one at this time."

McNally later added: "The most important part of this order is that it sends the message the governor has been sending for many days now in no uncertain terms: stay home and stay apart."

Saying "these are extraordinary times," Republican House Speaker Cameron Sexton said "we must all make thoughtful and sometimes difficult decisions to preserve public health, while also protecting Tennessee's economy. We can't have a healthy economy without a healthy Tennessee. Today's announcement was made after pragmatic deliberation and considerable discussion and input from our medical experts."

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tennessee, said in a statement that Lee made the right decision.

"Everything I've learned as chairman of the United States Senate health committee persuades me to support his decision," Alexander said. "Staying at home is an essential step ... in containing the disease and saving lives. New federal laws will help keep many payrolls coming and relieve some financial burdens."

Alexander said he is working on another step - a new "Manhattan Project," which the senator said aims to produce the largest number of COVID-19 tests quickly to identify and "isolate the few who are sick and care for them so the rest of America can go back to work, back to school and out to eat."

Congress has already put $11 billion into a "massive effort to create treatments and hopefully a vaccine," Alexander added.

Last week, Congress approved a $2.2 trillion economic and health response that is expected to bring up to $3 billion into Tennessee, U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, an Ooltewah Republican, says.

Last week, Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke announced that additional "non-essential" businesses in the city must temporarily close to reduce the spread of COVID-19, including indoor areas of shopping malls, all retail stores, salons, beauty shops, barbershops, massage parlors, spas, tanning salons and tattoo parlors.

Collegedale officials announced Monday that the city is continuing its Executive Order issued on March 22 declaring a state of emergency and is following Governor Lee's Executive Orders 21 and 22, mandating a two-week statewide order closing non-essential businesses. Both orders take affect at 11:59 p.m. Tuesday and will last through April 14. Residents are encouraged to stay home as much as possible.

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