Lee: Stay Home, Tennessee

Lee: Stay Home, Tennessee

Citing data showing voluntary measures aren’t working, the governor mandates restrictions on social and business activity to battle COVID-19.

by scott barker • April 3, 2020
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Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee announces a statewide Stay at Home order on Thursday.

UPDATE: This article has been updated to include details from Gov. Bill Lee's enforcement letter and the possible penalties for violating an executive order.

Tennessee joined 37 other states under a mandatory “stay at home” order Thursday after Gov. Bill Lee conceded that voluntary measures weren’t working to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Lee also announced the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would convert the Knoxville Expo Center into a temporary hospital to help handle the anticipated influx of patients.

“Tennesseans must remain at home unless they are engaging in essential activity,” Lee said when announcing his decision at his daily briefing.

Until Thursday, Lee had appealed to Tennesseans’ sense of personal responsibility to follow social distancing guidelines to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. However, residents who initially followed voluntary recommendations to limit public interactions have fallen back into more open social behaviors that could help facilitate transmission, the governor said.

State officials and medical providers are bracing for a surge in cases of COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, which they predict will arrive in about two weeks.

Lee also announced that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would prepare buildings in major cities across Tennessee, including Knoxville, to add capacity to the healthcare system.

Directly addressing Tennesseans, Lee said, “April stands to be a very tough month for our state. COVID-19 is an imminent threat and we need you to understand that staying at home is not an option; it’s a requirement for the swift defeat of COVID-19 in Tennessee.”

The Order

Lee’s order — actually an amendment to the voluntary Safer at Home order he issued on Monday — essentially makes it illegal to keep a nonessential business open or gather in crowds of more than 10 people. The governor said he has empowered local law enforcement agencies to enforce the order.

Tennessee was one of a handful of states that hadn’t already instituted a stay at home order. Lee had resisted making restrictions mandatory for weeks, but data about residents’ movement patterns convinced him that he needed to act.

Knoxville and Knox County leaders diverged in their reactions to the order. 

Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon welcomed the governor’s decision. “Gov. Bill Lee’s Stay at Home order is a necessary measure to help protect lives in Tennessee and avoid overloading our medical facilities,”  she said. “Watching the number of COVID-19 cases spread rapidly across the state reinforces that we all need to take every step possible to slow the spread of this virus.”

Jacobs, on the other hand, was ambivalent about the order. “I applaud the governor for following through with his convictions and fulfilling his duty to protect the people of Tennessee according to his best judgement,” he said. “However, I cannot applaud any government monitoring the movements of its people and mandating virtually everything we are allowed to do.

“I understand this is a crisis, but an economic crisis also looms with millions of people out of work and no way to earn a living, many of them due to mandated government shutdowns,” Jacobs continued. “We also have a looming mental health crisis as individuals struggle with depression and feelings of hopelessness and isolation, exacerbated by job loss — some have already taken their own lives.”

Lee said he relied on traffic data supplied by the Tennessee Department of Transportation and aggregate mobility data gleaned from cellphone tracking. The data found that “the movement of Tennesseans is trending back toward pre-COVID-19 levels after initially dipping,” Lee said, noting that the trend became apparent in the last four to five days.

A self-described Libertarian, Jacobs took exception to the use of the tracking data, though Lee said no individual information was collected. Invoking President Abraham Lincoln, Jacobs said that “we have a political crisis as our state and nation must determine a way to walk back from the damage currently being done to our system of free government.” 

Enforcement

Despite his objections, Jacobs said Knox County would comply with the order. That could involve enforcement actions, according to the governor.

Lee sent a letter to local law enforcement agencies on Wednesday giving them guidelines for developing their own enforcement policies. His letter specifically deals with two previous executive orders that restricted businesses and individuals, but the penalty for violating the orders is the same.

The letter notes that a violation of any executive order is a Class A misdemeanor, which is punishable by a sentence of up to 11 months, 29 days in jail and a maximum $2,500 fine.

Lee requested that law enforcement agencies encourage compliance first and only take enforcement action if efforts at persuasion fail.

"I ask you to utilize sound judgment, restraint, and discretion to first educate and warn your local businesses and establishments in order to provide them all reasonable opportunity to comply," he wrote. "Enforcement measures should be used as a last and final option only if they become necessary due to a refusal to voluntarily comply after all other reasonable means have been exhausted."

Representatives of the Knoxville Police Department and the Knox County Sheriff's Office said Thursday evening they had not seen the Stay at Home order.

“Once Sheriff Spangler is able to see and review the order, he will provide the public with information on what our role as law enforcement will be in the order,” said Kimberly Glenn, communications director for the Sheriff’s Office.

The City of Knoxville has already begun enforcing the county’s Safer at Home order, though as of Thursday afternoon police and codes officers had not issued any citations.

We will make any updates regarding the enforcement of Gov. Lee’s order once we have an opportunity to review it,” KPD Communications Manager Scott Erland said.

Lee said nonessential businesses, in particular, need to comply with the order by closing their doors to the public. “We’re asking businesses to act responsibly and not put public health at risk, and we expect that they’ll do that,” he said.

Preparing for the Surge

Lee also announced that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would convert buildings in Tennessee’s major cities into temporary hospitals for the treatment of patients who have tested positive for COVID-19 but don’t need critical care.

The alternative healthcare facilities would add about 7,000 beds for an expected surge in patients later this month. Lee only gave details about one facility, planned to add more than 1,600 beds in Nashville’s Music City Center. “This facility would only care for COVID-19-positive patients transferred from area hospitals,” he said.

In Knoxville, the Corps of Engineers will renovate the Knoxville Expo Center on Clinton Highway into a similar facility accommodating an undisclosed number of patients. Conversions to medical facilities typically involve heating-and-air upgrades, adding oxygen lines and installing other specialized equipment.

Lt. Col. Sonny Avichal of the Corps of Engineers said the sites were selected after assessing many facilities during the past few weeks as local officials sidestepped questions about using alternate treatment sites.

The Knox County Health Department initially said that hospitals were planning to use only their existing footprints but were taking measures such as eliminating elective procedures to free up beds. In recent days, Dr. Martha Buchanan, the Health Department director, said all options for expanding capacity were being considered.

The need is not yet acute in Knox County, which has about 50 active COVID-19 cases. Only 13 of 92 total patients have been hospitalized at any time during their illness, according to the Health Department.

Statewide, 35 percent of inpatient beds, 34 percent of intensive care unit beds and 71 percent of life-sustaining ventilators are available, according to Tennessee Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey.

Lee said modeling indicates the state’s hospitals will see a surge in cases that will peak sometime in the third week in April. If residents adhere to the Stay at Home order, he said, the peak could be pushed back, giving hospitals more time to stockpile supplies and prepare for the onslaught of patients. 

“We need all Tennesseans to put forth their best, most serious effort for the entire month,” Piercey said.

Lee will be in Knoxville today to meet with Kincannon, Jacobs and Buchanan. He said the intent of his order is clear. Ignoring it, he said, is “dangerous, it’s unacceptable and it’s a threat to lives in our community.”