Stand Down or Stay Apart?

Stand Down or Stay Apart?

With COVID-19 cases and unemployment claims both rising, Gov. Bill Lee is mulling whether to ease restrictions.

by scott barker • April 13, 2020
Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon, left, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee and Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs.

Gov. Bill’s Lee’s executive order requiring Tennessee residents to stay at home unless engaged in essential activities and closing nonessential businesses expires on Tuesday. 

Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon plans to keep the city's restrictions in place regardless of Gov. Bill Lee's decision about his statewide order.

Lee has said he wants to ease the burden of the coronavirus response on businesses and workers. More than 246,000 Tennesseans have filed for unemployment since March 14. 

But he hasn’t given an indication of whether he will extend the Stay at Home order, which state and local officials credit with slowing the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. 

The governor said during his media briefing on Thursday that the situation is fluid, with contagion models, hospital counts and other data changing on a daily basis.

“What we’re most interested in is making the right decision at the right time,” Lee said. “We don’t want to make a decision before we should.”

Federal anti-coronavirus guidelines for states are set to expire May 1 and President Donald Trump has pushed for relaxing the guidelines to get the economy moving again. 

Surgeon General Jerome Adams said some parts of the country where infection rates have been low could be given the green light to lift restrictions. “Most of the country will not, to be honest with you, but some will,” he said, “And that’s how we’ll reopen the country: place by place, bit by bit, based on the data.”

Lee has no shortage of officials lobbying him to either keep or extend the restrictions. Positive test results are still rising in Tennessee, though at a slower pace than in March, and the death toll rose to more than 100 over the weekend. 

As of Sunday, confirmed cases in Tennessee reached 5,308, with 101 deaths recorded statewide. In Knox County, the state Department of Health reported a total of 169 cases and no new deaths, leaving the fatality total at four. Of the total cases, 129 are classified as recovered.

Local Orders

Regardless of Lee’s decision, Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon said Thursday she plans to extend the city’s emergency order, also set to expire tomorrow. She said she has urged the governor to do likewise with the statewide order.

“I do anticipate extending the Safer at Home order for Knoxville and I also will be working closely with the governor and, obviously, the Health Department,” she said Thursday during a question-and-answer session on Facebook Live.

Kincannon said she would extend the city’s order every week as until the county has seen two weeks of consistently lower case numbers, has the hospital capacity to handle all cases and has readily available testing.

A version of that standard has been advocated by various public health and policy organizations, including the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute.

State Rep. Jason Zachary, a Republican representing West Knox County, claimed on Twitter that it would be unconstitutional for the city to enforce its order if Lee rescinds his directive. Under state law, however, mayors have the authority to declare a state of emergency and broad powers to issue orders independently of the governor.

Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs has made no secret about his concern for local businesses and his desire to allow them to reopen as soon as possible. In a statement issued last Thursday on alternate care site planning, Jacobs added an economic message.

“I am also committed to ensuring the health of our local economy,” he said. “Small businesses have always been the backbone of our community and they will now serve as the engine propelling our economic recovery.”

The county’s Stay at Home order was issued by Dr. Martha Buchanan, director of the Knox County Health Department. As the county’s health officer, Buchanan has the authority under state law to issue orders aimed at protecting public health.

Widespread testing, seen by many in the public health community across the country as a prerequisite for lifting restrictions, is not available yet in Tennessee. 

Nearly 71,000 people have been tested for the coronavirus in Tennessee, according to the state Health Department, which is about 1 percent of the population. In Knox County, public and private laboratories have combined to test 0.8 percent of its approximately 470,000 residents.

Charity Menefee, director of communicable and environmental disease and emergency preparedness for the Knox County Health Department, said Friday more supplies would allow the Health Department to expand testing criteria and conduct more than 90 tests per day instead of the 15-20 possible in the early weeks of the pandemic.

The Health Department is also expanding the criteria for testing to include more symptoms, which should increase the number of people who qualify. 

Still, Menefee said, the mandated restrictions that have slowed the spread of the coronavirus should not be abandoned.

“We believe that the change in the trajectory of the number of cases we are getting each day is because our community is abiding by social distancing,” she said. “That means keep those things in place.”

Legislators Lobby Lee

Zachary and fellow Repulican state Rep. Martin Daniel are urging Lee to lift restrictions.

“It’s time to restore our constitutional rights to travel and to assembly. Let’s get back to work!” Daniel tweeted over the weekend. “Responsibility for safety should soon be placed upon respective businesses to ensure safe, healthy behavior. It’s time to restore our rights and get back to work.”

Noting that there were only 28 active cases in Knox County as of Friday, Zachary called for a gradual resumption of economic activity.

“As of this morning, we have 28 active cases in Knox county out of 470,000 people, so if we take cautious steps and begin a slow opening of the economy as we move into May, we can do that in a way where we keep people safe but we also start to bring the economy back to save the jobs that are hanging in the balance and also get those who are out of work back to work.” he said on WATE-TV.

Democratic Rep. Gloria Johnson of Knoxville disagrees, saying the state isn’t prepared on the medical front to begin even a gradual easing of restrictions. 

We would have to have all the PPE (personal protective equipment), we would have to have testing available for every single person so that we could track those tests and track those positives and know that those people are quarantining.” Johnson told WATE.

Johnson said Lee must extend the statewide order. “It would be almost criminal not to extend it,” she said.

Lifting Restrictions Later

Nationally, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases who has become the face of the Trump administration’s response, said on Sunday that lifting restrictions would have to be gradual to avoid a resurgence of cases this summer.

“If all of a sudden we decide, ‘OK, it’s May,’ whatever, and we just turn the switch on, that could be a real problem,” Fauci said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

A study in The Lancet, based on the outbreak in China, warned that lifting restrictions before a vaccine is developed would lead to a second wave of infections. 

Local health experts and economists are also advising caution. There are dangers to reopening the economy prematurely, according to a policy brief written by an interdisciplinary team at the University of Tennessee that consists of economics, epidemiologists and public health researchers.

“The important point to remember is that the Tennessee economy will suffer regardless of what we do, whether we are at one of the endpoints of the policy continuum or somewhere in the middle,” wrote the team, which was led by Matthew Murray, director of the Howard H. Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy.

A completely open economy, with extensive person-to-person contact, would lead to a mass spread of COVID-19, according to Murray and his colleagues. “This would overwhelm the health care system,” the team wrote, “and ultimately lead to a subsequent closure of the economy.”