Gov. Bill Lee on Thursday ordered Tennesseans to stay home amid growing concerns that residents were not heeding his earlier call to do their part to combat the spread of coronavirus.
Lee’s altered approach comes just days after issuing an executive order that urged Tennesseans to stay home. The new course, he said, comes after data indicates an uptick in travel in recent days, despite the worsening pandemic.
The governor signed his latest executive order Thursday with it immediately taking effect. It will last through at least April 14.
It largely reflects an executive order signed on Monday, with only minor changes. It mandates the continued closure of non-essential businesses.
Essential businesses include grocery stores, pharmacies, gas stations and medical facilities. Financial institutions also are allowed to remain open.
It is unclear whether Lee’s latest action will demonstrably alter Tennesseans’ daily lives, given the latest mandate does not narrow down a long list of acceptable activities. Outdoor activities such as golf, tennis, swimming and other recreational sports are still allowed, as long as individuals aren’t congregating. There are no limitations on Tennesseans’ ability to drive anywhere.
Data pointed to increase in movement
Lee said the mandate was necessary because there was clear evidence from vehicle traffic and cell phone data that some residents were beginning to disregard his earlier safer at home order, calling such actions dangerous.
“I want to take a moment to speak directly to every Tennessean,” Lee said during a daily news conference Thursday. “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 home isn’t an option. It’s a requirement for the swift defeat of COVID-19 in Tennessee.”
The governor’s move comes after a growing chorus of Tennesseans and doctors, including most recently former U.S. Sen. Bill Frist, urged Lee to move beyond his recent “safer at home” order. Lee said he issued the mandate after having conversations with many in the medical community, including Frist.
The governor’s decision comes one day after similar moves were made in other southern states, including Mississippi and Florida. Those states issued such mandates on Wednesday, with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis citing President Donald Trump’s “changed demeanor” related to the pandemic.
As of Thursday, state officials reported 2,845 residents had been infected by COVID-19, with 32 fatalities and 263 hospitalizations.
Sites identified for added hospital beds to treat surge in patients
The governor’s statewide mandate is one of his strongest actions to date on the ongoing pandemic. It comes just one day after he and members of his administration told lawmakers he anticipated a shortage of hospital beds and ventilators in the coming weeks as Tennessee faces a “crush” of new cases that could force the state to use alternative facilities like college dorms and convention centers to house patients.
On Thursday, Lee also identified facilities throughout the state that would serve as temporary medical facilities. They include 1,600 beds at Nashville’s Music City Center, 170 beds at Memphis’ Gateway Shopping Center, and an as yet-unknown number of beds at the Chattanooga Convention Center and Knoxville Expo Center.
On Wednesday, Lee said the state was looking at modeling from a center at the University of Washington, which found as many as 3,200 Tennesseans could die by August from the virus.
Less than two hours before Lee’s announcement Thursday, Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke issued a shelter in place order for the city to significantly restrict activity. Other major cities in the state, including Nashville, Memphis and Knoxville, had previously issued “safer at home” orders.
Lee said Thursday the mandate was necessary despite decreases in movement throughout Tennessee in recent weeks.
“However, in recent days we have seen data indicating that movement may be increasing and we must get these numbers trending back down,” he said . “I have updated my previous executive order to clearly require that Tennesseans stay at home unless they are carrying out essential activities.”
How will order be enforced?
Lee said any Tennesseans interested in reporting potential businesses violating the executive order to contact their local law enforcement officials. He added law enforcement agencies across the state are to use their own steps to enforce the mandate.
Prior to Thursday’s mandate, Lee was repeatedly criticized by doctors and public officials throughout the state, including on national media, for stopping short of what’s needed.
Lee said his administration analyzed cell phone data and traffic patterns to reach the conclusion such a mandate was necessary. The administration said data indicated while there was a steep drop off in vehicle movement between March 13 and March 29, recently, travel has trended upward.
Lee shared some of the traffic data on social media Thursday afternoon.
Asked why he waited until Thursday to issue the mandate on limiting movement in Tennessee, despite the traffic data showing activity increasing earlier in the week, Lee said, “You can’t look too closely at one or two days to develop a trend.”
Lee’s decision to implement the mandate came after he frequently said no such action was necessary as he worked to balance public health and the protection of personal liberties. He also said experts in the medical community remained divided on the issue.
“This is not a mandated ‘shelter in place’ order, because it remains deeply important to me to protect personal liberties,” Lee on Monday.
Prior to his Monday executive order, Lee insisted statewide orders were difficult to enforce, saying he preferred to advise social distancing instead of mandating it.
Medical experts criticized the governor while signing onto a petition started just weeks ago by Nashville-area dermatologist Jennifer Martin calling for a statewide mandate. As of Thursday morning, more than 31,000 people — including thousands of medical professionals.
Lee said Thursday input from the medical community played a role in his latest decision.
Moments after the governor’s decision to require Tennesseans to stay at home was announced, a group of doctors who had been campaigning for a stay-at-home order issued a statement saying the new restrictions would save lives.
Dr. Aaron Milstone, a Williamson County doctor who organized the campaign, praised thousands of doctors who signed a petition to put pressure on the governor.
“Many of these frontline healthcare workers who risk their lives every day also risked their careers for speaking up — and we cannot thank them enough,” Milstone said in a written statement. He added later: “This movement showed that — despite our differences — when people come together, we can make change that saves lives.”.