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

NASHVILLE — While Hamilton Countians and fellow Tennesseans began curbing their movements in the days since the state's first coronavirus case appeared here on March 10, a recent jump in travel across many areas of the state helped convince Gov. Bill Lee last week to finally issue a stay-at-home order.

The Republican governor, who for days had resisted pleas from physicians and others to issue a stricter decree, cited mobility data from Unacast, a high-tech firm that bases its estimates on cell phone data. And Lee also cited Tennessee Department of Transportation monitoring stations around the state, especially in urban areas.

Unacast's "Social Distancing Scoreboard" last Sunday slapped Tennessee and Hamilton County with letter "D" grades because of a rise in both "average mobility" and "non-essential visits."

The travel activity "D" grade meant that both the state and county had less than a 40% decrease in average mobility and less than a 60% decrease in non-essential visits.

Alarmed over the trends, Lee announced Thursday, April 1, that he was replacing his "safer at home" order with the stricter "stay in place" directive.

"We believe the intent of this order is clear. We need all Tennesseans who can to stay at home," Lee said in his remote briefing from the Capitol. "That said, over the last two or three days, we've seen some troubling data points that tell us some in our state may not be staying in place as much as we would like."

"It's dangerous, it's unacceptable and it's a threat to lives in our communities," Lee said.

At earlier points in March, Unacast had slapped Hamilton County with "F" grades. But after the March 13 announcement that an Episcopalian priest in Chattanooga had COVID-19, residents in the days that followed gradually began changing their behavior to some extent. By March 20, the county actually had a "B-" grade, from Unacast.

But that later fell to the "D" grade.

Latest available Unacast data and letter grades showed Hamilton County's overall social distancing grade improved to a "C-" on Tuesday, March 31. But Tennessee's worsened to "D-."

Meanwhile, the situation is even worse in a number of rural counties. Unacast listed Marion County as one of a number of Tennessee rural counties on Tuesday, March 31, with overall "F" grades.

Larger Bradley County, after getting slapped with an overall "F" grade on March 23, saw its failing grade improve, barely, to an overall "D-" by Tuesday, March 31, based on Unacast's combined average mobility and non-essential visit data.

Efforts to reach Unacast through a message feature on its website were unsuccessful on Friday.

Lee's "troubling data points" were based on Tennessee Department of Transportation data as well as additional data compiled by Unacast, which collects and provides cellphone location data and analysis to the retail, real estate, marketing and tourism industries.

State Transportation Department Deputy Commissioner and Chief Engineer Paul Degges said in an interview last week the state's highway and freeway monitors began seeing a rise in Chattanooga area traffic, which last Sunday, March 29, had at that time decreased 42% below 2019 figures.

That began to increase again the next day, Monday, March 30. By Wednesday, April 1, the rise in Chattanooga area traffic had increased by 21 percentage points to only a 31% reduction over 2019 traffic volume numbers.

"Things were starting to pop back again," Degges said. "I'm sure there were other things the governor was looking at, but this was a piece of the information that was looking at the mobility of Tennesseans."

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

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