This story was updated Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020, at 8:12 p.m. with more information.
Gov. Bill Lee says he is lifting COVID-19 restrictions on businesses and other gatherings in 89 of the state's 95 counties beginning Wednesday, while also extending Tennessee's state of emergency order in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Specifically excluded from his order are the state's six largest counties, which includes Hamilton. Because these counties operate their own health departments, they can continue setting their own requirements for another month, Lee said.
"While we lift all business restrictions, we don't remove the affirmation to business owners that they should follow safe practices," Lee said during a news conference Tuesday, adding that updates will be made to the Tennessee Pledge guidelines online. "We need to continue to do all the things that keep us safe, including our businesses."
The updated executive order also removes all limits on gathering sizes in those 89, non-metro counties. Those limits were put in place because the coronavirus is more likely to spread among large groups of people, especially those in close quarters who are not wearing personal protective equipment such as face masks.
"Gatherings are not one size fits all. It's become unnecessarily complex to keep those restrictions in place, and really after six months, Tennesseans have learned how to assess risk and how to take the right steps to protect themselves and those around them," Lee said.
The governor told reporters that state law gives the large counties their own authority. But he noted that with the state-of-emergency powers he invoked in March, he could supersede them, although he has chosen not to do so.
He also defended the emergency powers he's invoked — Republican lawmakers are looking at creating new restrictions on what a governor may do during a declared state of emergency. "It's allowed us to respond more rapidly because of the ability to lift the restrictions and regulations. It's allowed us to have access to the federal funds for the programming and efforts we think are most important to fight the spread of COVID-19."
Moreover, Lee added, "it's also allowed us to keep our health care capacity stable because we are allowed ... to lift some regulations on health care providers so we can keep our health care stable."
Despite continued pressure from some advocacy groups to implement a statewide mask mandate, Lee said he will continue to delegate to county mayors the decision over whether or not to require face masks or coverings in public. However, he emphasized the importance of wearing face masks to curb the spread of COVID-19.
Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger renewed a countywide mask mandate on Sept. 3 and will have to decide whether or not to extend the order, which is set to expire Oct. 8, in the coming week.
Lee's latest announcement came a day before his existing emergency order is set to expire. Lee has been under pressure to lift the COVID-19 restrictions by a number of legislators from his own party as well as some conservatives.
Last month, a group filed a state lawsuit challenging Lee's decision to delegate authority to local governments to take actions — including mandating mask usage — to combat the disease's spread.
Noting President Donald Trump's emergency declaration remains in place, Lee defended his decision, saying that access to federal funding was tied to the state of emergency.
In response to criticism, Lee and state Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn also defended release of information last week that projected Tennessee public students, who had been out of school for six months after the coronvarius erupted here last March, have lost considerable ground.
Chalkbeat Tennessee reported that pre-pandemic test data analyzed by national researchers — not recent back-to-school test results from Tennessee students — was the basis for state projections this week that proficiency rates will drop by 50% or more for third-grade reading and math due to schooling disruptions during the pandemic.
But Schwinn pointed out that Tennessee officials felt comfortable citing the information based on actual assessment tests of students returning to school in August. A group of school leaders, including Bradley County Schools Director Dr. Linda Cash, said already struggling students were especially hard hit with the lowest percentile of students dropping two grade levels in the tests this August and September.
She noted students who previously tested proficient "maintained their proficiency. They did not grow but they maintained that proficiency."
During Tuesday's news conference Lee and other officials announced:
— They are providing a framework for safe visitation for nursing home and long-term-care facilities.
— They also plan to allow for the reopening of senior centers, while providing that capacity must be limited to the extent necessary to accommodate adequate social distancing.
Executive Order No. 63 includes provisions that:
- Provide that persons with COVID-19 or COVID-19 symptoms are required to stay at home, and that employers may not require or allow employees with COVID-19 to work;
- Urge persons to wear a cloth face covering in places where in close proximity to others, while facilitating local decision-making concerning face covering requirements;
- Urge social distancing from those outside of your household, while eliminating caps on gathering size that have proven overly complex and arbitrary because they do not adequately account for critical considerations such as venue capacity and physical characteristics, type of activity involved, and location (indoors vs. outdoors), and thus undermine the more important focus on social distancing;
- Providing a framework for safe visitation for nursing home and long-term-care facilities;
- Allow for the reopening of senior centers, while providing that capacity must be limited to the extent necessary to accommodate adequate social distancing;
- Provide that employers, businesses, and venues are expected to comply with the Tennessee Pledge for operating safely (the 6 counties with locally run county health departments continue to have existing statutory authority to issue additional directives on businesses/venues);
- Continue access to take-out alcohol sales to encourage carryout and delivery orders;
- Allow broad access to telehealth services;
- Increase opportunities for people to easily join the healthcare workforce;
- Facilitate increased testing and health care capacity;
- Extend deadlines and suspend certain in-person continuing education, gathering, or inspection requirements to avoid unnecessary person-to-person contact; and
- Increase opportunities to work remotely where appropriate.
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