Order Extended

Order Extended

Gov. Lee maintains his Stay at Home directive but plans to begin a phased revival of the state’s economy beginning May 1.

by scott barker • April 14, 2020
Empty patio dining areas on Market Square after closing during the coronavirus crisis.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee extended the state’s Stay at Home order through the end of the month on Monday but promised a phased-in resumption of normal economic activity beginning May 1. 

Governor says social distancing will be incorporated in business reopening plans.

Lee said nonessential businesses will be allowed to reopen on an industry by industry basis beginning two and a half weeks from now, with social distancing requirements remaining in place to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.

“Beginning in May, we will begin a phased reboot of our economy,” Lee said. “Between now and then, we will create industry-specific guidance so that businesses can be fully prepared to operate safely and protect their employees and customers.”

The governor indicated that those guidelines could include incorporating social distancing practices in the workplace. “We need Tennesseans to go back to work but we also need everyone to realize that physical distancing will need to continue for the foreseeable future,” Lee said. 

Lee and Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey said they’re encouraged by the slowing rate of coronavirus infections in the state. The number of positive cases statewide reached 5,610 on Monday, but the rate of growth has slowed. “This is the 10th consecutive day with a single-digit percentage increase,” Piercey said. 

Despite the positive trend, Lee said that until a vaccine is developed — which likely will take months if not longer than a year — social distancing will have to be “a way of life.”

His announcement came hours after Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon extended the city’s similar local order by another week — the maximum allowed by city ordinance. 

“Medical and public health professionals tell us that social distancing is working,” Kincannon said. “By keeping these restrictions in place we save lives and set the foundation for economic recovery.”

She said she applauded Lee’s decision. “Knoxvillians want to get back to work, there’s no doubt about it,” Kincannon said. “A lot of people are struggling to pay their bills, to pay their rent.”

Meanwhile, Knox County Health Department Director Martha Buchanan said positive COVID-19 cases are still going in the wrong direction and the county isn’t ready to ease social distancing restrictions. The Health Department added seven new cases to its official tally Monday morning, bringing the total to 166. 

The state Health Department’s afternoon case statistics release, which typically runs a little higher than the Knox County report posted in the morning, put the number at 173. The state reported 128 of those have recovered; there have been four COVID-19 deaths in the county.

 “We need to see cases going down, and not going down for just a couple of days, but a trend of cases going down,” Buchanan said.

Local Reaction

Lee’s proposal was short on details, which he said would come later in the week. At his daily media briefing on Monday, he said he would form an Economic Recovery Group under the leadership of Tourism Commissioner Mark Ezell. The group will coordinate with legislative leaders, mayors, healthcare professionals and industry representatives.

Lee said the Economic Recovery Group will issue industry-specific guidance so that businesses can be prepared to operate safely and protect their employees and customers.

Though the governor’s Unified Command Group will continue to focus on efforts to combat the spread of the coronavirus, it will also make recommendations about the economic recovery.

Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs, who has frequently stated that businesses need to reopen, said Lee’s decision was in the best interest of the state.

“I agree with the governor,” Jacobs said in a statement. “Knox County and the State of Tennessee should not continue this model of economic shut down much longer. It isn’t sustainable. We don’t have to make a choice between a healthy economy and healthy people. There is a way to combat the virus without killing the economy.”

Jacobs said the spread of COVID-19 is slowing, though he expects cases to continue to creep up. “With 36 active cases in Knox County, our numbers are stabilizing,” he said.“This pandemic is serious, and I certainly don’t want to underestimate it. Physical distancing wasn’t intended to eradicate COVID-19, but rather to slow its spread and ensure we didn’t overwhelm our hospital system.”

Kincannon was also optimistic, but she echoed Buchanan’s concerns about the trajectory of the contagion during a question-and-answer session Monday evening on Facebook Live.

“The incubation period of COVID-19 is two weeks, so what we want to see before lifting restrictions is two straight weeks where the number of new cases is steady or going down. We haven’t seen that yet — we had an increase of six cases today, and that reflects actions we took two weeks ago,” Kincannon said.

She said she would be willing to extend the city’s Safer at Home order even if Lee lifts restrictions statewide if the curve doesn’t start bending downward.

Kincannon said widespread testing — 3,587 Knox Countians have been tested to date, less than 1 percent of the population — and contact tracing to identify people who might have been exposed to the coronavirus are a must.

“We need to make sure the people of our community are healthy,” she said. “That comes first, and economic health will follow.”

National Context

Lee joined governors across the country on Monday in turning their attention toward reviving their states’ commercial lives. 

Hard-hit states on both coasts are banding together to plan how they will approach restarting their economies once the surge in COVID-19 cases has passed.

The governors of California, Oregon and Washington formed what they termed the Western States Pact to work together on an economic recovery plan. 

On the East Coast, the Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York — the state suffering the most under the pandemic with 195,031 cases and more than 10,000 deaths — joined with the governors of Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Delaware, New Jersey and Rhode Island onMonday to create a committee to act regionally. 

In interviews with the New York Times, members of both groups said each state will come up with its own plan but work cooperatively with their neighbors.

“Well, seeing as we had the responsibility for closing the state down,” Gov. Tom Wolf of Pennsylvania said, “I think we probably have the primary responsibility for opening it up.”

In a press conference, President Donald Trump later asserted that he has the authority to tell governors when they can open their states’ economies.

“The president of the United States calls the shots,” he said. “They can’t do anything without the approval of the president of the United States.”

Speaking before the president’s remarks, in response to a reporter’s question about Trump’s assertion of authority over state affairs, Lee said he had a good working relationship with the White House but made no reference to the president. 

“Vice President (Mike) Pence is working with every governor in the country to develop specific strategies for everything COVID-related,” he said.

Lee said he’s searching for a middle ground that might cause discomfort but will enable the state to move forward. “We can’t sacrifice the health and safety of Tennesseans,” he said, “but we also can’t keep our economy shut down.”