Governor extends ‘shelter at home’ order until April 30, prepares to reopen economy

By , Daily Memphian Updated: April 13, 2020 5:59 PM CT | Published: April 13, 2020 3:09 PM CT

Noting Tennessee is not “out of the woods yet,” Gov. Bill Lee extended his COVID-19 “shelter at home” order through April 30 and said he would like to start reopening the economy next month.

The governor’s decision, announced in his Monday press conference, keeps nonessential businesses closed and prohibits groups of more than 10 for the next two and half weeks.

A decision on reopening schools after April 24 is expected Wednesday.

Tennessee up to 5,610 cases, 109 deaths

With Tennessee passing 5,600 COVID-19 cases and reaching 109 deaths, Lee said he opted for the April 30 extension in consultation with the White House and will start rebooting the economy in May.

“It’s clear the economy cannot shut down for months on end,” Lee said, noting the state will have to “reimagine” how to operate businesses without allowing the disease to rebound. “We need Tennesseans to go back to work, but we need everyone to realize that physical distancing must continue for the foreseeable future.”

Tennessee has seen more than 250,000 initial unemployment claims in the last three weeks. 

An economic recovery advisory group headed by Tourism Commissioner Mark Ezell will figure out how to reopen the state’s economy without exacerbating the spread of the disease.

“Industry-specific” guidance will be put together to allow businesses to reopen using safe operations and to protect employees and customers.

Ezell will work with legislative leaders, mayors statewide and industry representatives while the COVID-19 Unified Command will continue to deal with the disease, overseeing hospital capacity and distribution of personal protection equipment and the time frame for phasing in the economic reopening.

“Defeating this disease once and for all requires specific advances, scientific advances that are many months away,” Lee said. “But until that time, we have to find new ways of living our lives and operating our businesses.”

Until a treatment or vaccine is available, staying apart will become a part of life across the state for the next year to year and a half, even after the economy opens, the governor said.

Otherwise, the state runs the “very serious risk” that the disease could “come roaring back” and erase any progress the state makes.

House Speaker Cameron Sexton, a Crossville Republican, pointed out Lee’s order “closely aligns” with President Donald Trump’s approach for reopening portions of the economy as quickly as possible.

“The governor’s mitigation efforts have flattened the curve and have saved lives in Tennessee. We will continue to work with the governor during this unprecedented time,” Sexton said in a statement.

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, an Oak Ridge Republican, lauded Lee’s “flexible and data-focused approach” to extending the “safer at home” order.

“The numbers are improving and the curve is flattening. This is exactly why an extension is needed. As we begin to prepare for a new normal, we must be certain the peak is behind us. Only then can we safely ensure the health of both our people and our economy. We must beat back both the virus and the economic disruption it has created,” McNally said in a statement.

In contrast, House Democratic Chairman Mike Stewart of Nashville said more effort needs to be put into increased testing and contact tracing before the state reopens the economy.

Stewart said he has questions about the number of beds available and healthcare workers for contact tracing and testing, as well as a system to ensure local outbreaks don’t turn into regional problems.

“You can’t just lift restrictions without having an extensive network of people in place to make sure the virus is contained. Otherwise, you just going to have the virus start up all over again,” Stewart said.

Similarly, Democratic state Sen. Jeff Yarbro of Nashville said the governor’s April 30 time frame should be based on data, not an “artificial deadline.”

“Reopen the economy when there’s sufficient capacity to do so safely. The sooner, the better,” he said via Twitter. “But let’s rush toward having a test and trace strategy, to having sufficient hospital capacity, to having guidance for sectors and communities, to having a plan for resurgences.”

During the “shelter at home” order’s duration, only businesses deemed essential are allowed to operate, and people are required to stay at home, except for activities considered essential, though the list is rather long, including outdoor exercise and trips to work, grocery stores, pharmacies and home stores.

Shelby County had the most cases in the state, 1,215, as of Monday, followed by Davidson County with 1,178 and Sumner County with 445. On a good note, the state has had 10 straight days of single-percentage case growth, and with more than 76,000 tests conducted, officials believe the curve is on a downward trend.

On a national level, the United States leads the world with the highest death toll, nearly 22,000 lives and more than 555,000 infected with the coronavirus.

The governor’s decision came as Tennessee dealt with another natural disaster after a tornado struck the Chattanooga region, killing two people and destroying dozens and homes and businesses. Lee is slated the visit the area Tuesday.

The governor issued a long-awaited demand for “shelter at home” order on April 2, citing increases in traffic movement. A group of doctors had been seeking the order for a week, insisting it was needed to keep people at home to stop the virus from spreading.

A University of Washington model of COVID-19 sets Tennessee’s peak for infection at April 17 while a projection put together by Vanderbilt University foresees the disease peaking in mid-June under status quo conditions and mid-May if Tennessee gets more aggressive with testing and contact tracing.

The governor said he had not spoken with Dr. John Graves, who is heading the Vanderbilt project, but said talked to several national experts before extending the “shelter at home” order and deciding to embark on an economic rebound.

Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey pointed out the state is trying to reach the point that a test can be administered to any person who requests it, but universal testing is not available or needed, she said.

Piercey said the state isn’t ready, either, to start saying how many positive cases are being found in nursing homes where positive infections have been identified. More than 100 residents and staff members at a Gallatin nursing home were treated in late March, and three of those died.

Numerous people at a Germantown nursing home also were identified over the past weekend as COVID-19 positive.

For now, though, the state has 12,000 staffed hospital beds, with 5,700 occupied and a surge capacity of 17,000 beds, according to Stuart McWhorter, who is leading the Unified Command.

The state has delivered 28 million personal protective devices to all 95 counties.

Editor’s Note: The Daily Memphian is making our coronavirus coverage accessible to all readers — no subscription needed. Our journalists continue to work around the clock to provide you with the extensive coverage you need; if you can subscribe, please do


Bill Lee COVID-19
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.


Reading comments and joining the conversation are some of the many benefits of subscribing. Join the conversation by clicking the View Comments button below. Not a subscriber? Click here. 

Our commenting policy can be viewed here