Governor issues ‘shelter at home’ order, gives law enforcement leeway

By , Daily Memphian Updated: April 03, 2020 4:34 PM CT | Published: April 02, 2020 6:34 PM CT

Gov. Bill Lee issued a long-awaited “shelter at home” order Thursday, April 2, but said it was based on traffic data rather than demands by physicians to restrict the transmission of COVID-19 as deaths are expected to peak April 20.

“We believe the intent of this order is clear. We need all Tennesseans who can to stay at home,” Lee said in his daily remote briefing from the State Capitol. “That said, over the last two or three days, we’ve seen some troubling data points that tell us some in our state may not be staying in place as much as we would like.”

7,000 more hospital beds needed for COVID-19 surge, state predicts

The Lee administration notified law enforcement officials Wednesday about the need to start enforcing the governor’s stricter order.

The state will watch people’s activity over the coming weekend and take “appropriate steps for enforcement as we see them,” Lee said. He noted agencies will have “leeway” for enforcement, which can include misdemeanor citations.

Though many people are staying at home to avoid spreading the disease, the state has clear evidence too many people are starting to “disregard” the “safer at home” request he made Monday, the governor said.

“It’s dangerous, it’s unacceptable and it’s a threat to lives in our communities,” Lee said.

More than a week after 2,000 physicians called for him to order people to stay at home, the governor made the “shelter at home” order through April 14, allowing only essential travel — for example, trips to the grocery store, pharmacy or to jobs considered essential.

State Sen. Raumesh Akbari reacted by saying she is “grateful” and noted it is time for the state to “come together to provide every frontline worker” with personal protective equipment needed for hospitals and clinics.

“Tennessee owes our doctors and nurses, who advocated relentlessly for a smart, life-saving stay-at-home order, a tremendous amount of gratitude,” said Akbari, a Memphis Democrat. “In addition to risking their lives to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, they used their voices to protect their colleagues, neighbors and communities.”

Legislative Democrats sent a March 23 letter to the governor urging him to issue a statewide “safer at home” order.

He took that step Monday, March 30, then followed with the “shelter at home” order a day after saying the state expects COVID-19 cases to peak April 20 and for the state to be 7,800 hospitals short of the projected demand.

COVID-19 death toll could top 3,400 in Tennessee

Lee did not broach that projection in his Thursday press conference, even though his COVID-19 Unified Command is expecting the demand for hospital resources to reach its zenith April 19, followed by a peak in fatalities at 165 the next day alone and 3,422 coronavirus-related deaths projected by Aug. 4, according to the model the state is using to prepare its response.

On Thursday, the state reported 2,845 positives cases out of 34,611 tested with 263 hospitalizations and 32 deaths.

About 200 people in the state have recovered since the crisis started, according to Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey, who said two labs in the state have 45-minute tests and those should be more prevalent in the next few days.

The National Guard has 400 personnel conducting “surge” missions across the state, including working testing drive-through locations, and more could be called in, according to Maj. Gen. Jeff Holmes, a member of the COVID-19 Unified Command.

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The Federal Emergency Management Agency approved a COVID-19 major disaster declaration in the state, accelerating efforts by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to expand hospital bed capacity statewide to add 7,000 beds as the surge approaches, according to Holmes.

Gateway Shopping Center to house temporary hospital as city braces for COVID-19 surge

The Music City Center in downtown Nashville will be transformed into a health care facility and could take 1,600 patients, while the Gateway Shopping Center in Memphis could take 170 patients. Additional areas in Memphis are being assessed.

Instead of stark projections as his reasoning, though, Lee focused on Tennessee Department of Transportation traffic patterns for March and data from Unacast dealing with cell phone mobility to determine people are moving about too frequently.

Tennessee received a D for travel activity from Unacast, which updated its human mobility data Thursday, meaning it had less than a 40% decrease in average mobility and less than a 60% decrease in nonessential visits. It ranked similarly to surrounding states.

Some leaders are questioning why the governor based his decision on state travel data instead of the advice of doctors.

Residents’ change in daily urban freeway traffic showed a 41% drop-off from pre-COVID-19 levels statewide Thursday while Memphis showed only a 30% reduction over the past two weeks, which could explain why it has the highest number of virus cases in the state.

Travel over the past weekend statewide hit its lowest point, down by 53% Sunday, but then crept back up, likely as people returned to work. The pattern was similar during the previous weekend of March 21-22.

In response, state Sen. Jeff Yarbro said the governor made the right move to issue a “clear directive,” though he noted the state needs to quit “playing catch-up” on restrictions many other states have put in place.

“I’m not sure why urban freeway data is the metric we’re using here or why last Monday’s data would be less troubling than this Monday’s data. But whatever. I’m glad we’re finally doing this,” said Yarbro, a Nashville Democrat.

State Rep. Mike Stewart also called the governor’s order “long overdue.” He had not looked at the traffic data.

“My assumption is the governor’s decision reflects thousands of doctors, including apparently Sen. (Bill) Frist making the case that this was an essential part of any valid coronavirus strategy,” said Stewart, a Nashville Democrat.

A study done by the University of Washington projecting the state’s COVID-19 peak is “a very powerful rationale for doing everything we can, including a shelter in place order,” Stewart said.

Now that the state’s “shelter at home” order is in place, Stewart said Tennessee needs to focus on a more comprehensive testing program.

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally commended Lee Thursday for his “ability to adapt” in a “fluid situation,” saying the governor is doing everything he can to save lives and “minimize” damage to the economy.

“As the peak of the COVID crisis approaches, it is more important than ever that we flatten the curve and prevent a run on needed resources. Gov. Lee has consistently committed to a data-focused approach and he has proven it again today. The numbers don’t lie and it is clear at this moment a stronger mandate is needed,” said McNally, an Oak Ridge Republican.

House Speaker Cameron Sexton also supported the governor’s decision requiring people to stay at home except for essential activities.

“We have been, and we will remain, flexible as we continue to receive additional data and input from medical experts as we fight to reduce the projected strain on our health care system and keep our citizens, their families and communities across this state safe,” Sexton, a Crossville Republican, said in a statement.

Lee did acknowledge the opinions of physicians “certainly do influence” his decisions. He said he has consulted with experts in the medical field since the crisis began, including national leaders.

“Dr. Frist and I have been talking for weeks regularly about the approaches we’re taking, the numbers we see, the direction we should be taking,” Lee said. “I absolutely put value in input from our health care community and from public health officials I’ve consulted with.”

COVID-19 in Memphis and Shelby County: April


Gov. Bill Lee Randy McNally 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.


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