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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Gov. Bill Lee, flanked by Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke, right,, and Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger, left,, speaks during a press conference at Wilson Air Center on Tuesday, April 14, 2020 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

NASHVILLE — Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee on Friday signed his latest COVID-19 executive order, No. 38, which increases the number of people who can participate in social and recreational activities from 10 to 50.

It also allows the resumption of festivals, fairs, parades, large parties, picnics, sporting events, summer camps and more under certain guidelines.

It's the latest action by the Republican governor to relax or end his previous executive orders on Tennesseans, businesses and other areas of the economy as Lee engages in a delicate balancing act.

Lee is hoping to keep a lid on rising infections of the potentially deadly coronavirus while reviving an economy flattened by the disease, which sparked a modern-day record 14.7% unemployment rate among Tennesseans.

As of Friday, according to the state health department's website, Tennessee had 19,394 people with active positive cases, up 433 since Thursday, and 315 total deaths, up by two. There were 1,560 hospitalized and 12,566 reported as having recovered from the virus.

The jump in Friday's official statistics apparently came in part due to a viral outbreak on a Rhea County farm where the number of confirmed cases jumped this week from 13 to more than 200.

In advance of signing Friday's order, Lee told reporters Thursday that "we want to remind everybody the reason that we have gotten here is because Tennesseans had been committed to social distancing.

"We can lift restrictions and open up our economy, but we can never forget that social distancing continues to mitigate the spread of this virus, which still exists in our communities," the governor said. "It still exists in our state. It's a public health threat and we remember that as we go out, as we gather, as we do the things that we're beginning to do, that we remember that social distancing is a part of the way that we do this and address it safely."

The order technically applies only to smaller counties that don't have their own health department, separate from the state. But Mayor Jim Coppinger issued a statement Friday saying Hamilton County will follow the order.

"We want our economy to open back up," Lee said. "We want Tennesseans to get back to work. We want tax revenues to increase again. We want, again, to begin to mitigate this tremendous budget challenge we have in this state."

Lee and state lawmakers are confronted with fixing a $500 million hole in the state's budget which ends June 30 as well as what could be a $1 billion shortfall in the new spending plan that takes effect July 1.

Lee's latest order directs groups to maintain "appropriate social distancing for the purposes of recreational gatherings," a list that includes festivals, fairs, parades, large parties, picnics, sporting events, summer camps and more.

All "should to the greatest extent practicable maintain at least six feet of separation from persons outside their household" in groups of 50 or more, the order says.

The order quickly emphasizes that "this limitation does not necessarily prohibit" groups of 50 or more from gathering in a single place or venue for an activity or event "if they are in otherwise smaller groups that substantially maintain six feet of separation."

As an example, the order says that more than 50 people "may sit in a set of bleachers and watch an event provided that persons or multiple smaller groups of persons are spread out from one another and maintain at least six (6) feet of separation from other groups or persons."

And while contact sporting events and activities remain prohibited, it provides a loophole for "collegiate and professional sporting events and activities," saying they "may be conducted" if permitted by their governing bodies.

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

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