Governor signs executive order curtailing business operations statewide

By , Daily Memphian Updated: March 23, 2020 7:25 AM CT | Published: March 22, 2020 11:31 AM CT

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Gov. Bill Lee signed an executive order Sunday, March 22, calling for businesses across the state to use alternative business models beginning Monday, March 23, 2020, until midnight April 6, 2020.

The order curtailing many business operations is similar to orders already put in place in Memphis and Shelby County, eliminating dine-in at restaurants and gyms, for example.

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This order makes the measures statewide.

The order also outlines ways businesses and citizens should work to protect vulnerable populations.


“The COVID-19 pandemic has created both an economic and a health crisis and our response must continue to address both aspects,” Lee said. “Our goal is to keep the public, especially vulnerable populations, safe while doing everything possible to keep Tennesseans in a financially stable position.”

A little more than an hour earlier, Metro Nashville Mayor John Cooper issued an order going much further. His required all non-essential businesses to close and for people to stay inside except for necessary activities such as going to the grocery store.

The governor’s order also runs counter to a request by 1,500 physicians statewide who called on Gov. Lee to issue a stay-at-home order.

Physicians, including Dr. Aaron Milstone, Dr. Tufik Assad and Dr. Devin Sherman of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine at Williamson Medical Center, and Dr. David Aronoff, chief of Infectious Disease at Vanderbilt Medical Center urged the governor to make a different order requiring people statewide to stay at home to stop the spread of the virus.

“I want to address Gov. Lee and the public directly, I want to reiterate we need the shelter at home, safe at home for all Tennesseans,” Milstone said in a statement. “We can save more lives with a stay-at-home order for Gov. Bill Lee.”

The letter from physicians notes “we have little time to ‘flatten the curve on the current situation,” with a window likely to close in seven to 10 days when the viral spread will be “so rampant” patients will be critically ill and dying.

And it points out China and South Korea made “great strides” by prohibiting travel and closing non-essential industry and businesses.

Executive Order 17 prohibits social gatherings of 10 or more people and also enacts the following provisions regarding restaurants, bars and similar food and drink establishments:

  • Establishments are to exclusively offer drive-thru, take-out or delivery options to support families, businesses and the food supply chain during this emergency.
  • Establishments may sell alcohol by takeout or delivery (with the purchase of food) in closed containers to those who are age 21 and up.

Gyms and fitness/exercise centers or substantially similar facilities are to close temporarily and suspend in-person services until April 6, 2020. In the interim, these businesses are encouraged to pursue digital programming if possible. 

The order also pursues additional measures to keep vulnerable populations such as the elderly and those with underlying conditions safe:

  • Visitation to nursing homes, retirement homes and long-term care or assisted-living facilities is now limited to visits involving essential care only.
  • Businesses are encouraged to enact policies that take extra steps to assist vulnerable populations by considering measures such as shopping hours exclusive from the general public.

“I urge every Tennessean to take these actions seriously - our physical and economic health depend on this as we work to beat COVID-19,” Lee said.

Democratic state Rep. Mike Stewart of Nashville said the governor made the right move, including giving restaurants the ability to keep a revenue stream. He said he wished the Legislature had passed a budget amendment last week enabling restaurants and bars to keep the sales tax and liquor-by-the-drink tax for the next three months.

“But I think he should go the next step and issue a stay-at-home order like Mayor Cooper has done,” Stewart said.

Even though many of the state’s rural counties have not confirmed cases, Stewart said staying at home is a necessity because it’s a “misunderstanding” to think outlying counties don’t have any cases. In most cases, their health departments don’t have testing equipment, but leaders need to assume the virus is spreading as it has in other areas, Stewart said.

“So we have to assume the entire state’s at risk and act accordingly,” Stewart said.


Gov. Bill Lee COVID-19 Coronavirus in Tennessee
Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard is a Nashville-based reporter with more than 30 years of journalism experience as a writer, editor and columnist covering the state Legislature and Tennessee politics for The Daily Memphian.