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Lee Strengthens Stay-Home Order; Jacobs Warns of Erosion of Civil Liberties

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Governor Bill Lee is through asking Tennesseans to stay home and avoid unnecessary travel. He’s now ordering residents to stay put through April 14, using an executive order signed Thursday afternoon.

Lee had for two weeks resisted calls from the medical community to issue a mandatory stay-home order, citing concerns about personal liberties. But the governor was apparently swayed by data from TDOT that showed an increase in highway traffic and by cell phone information that showed more Tennesseans traveling beyond home.

The order excepts essential trips outside the house, including medical appointments, pharmacy pickups, grocery runs and providing care for a family member. Outdoor activity is also allowed, provided people aren’t congregating in groups. The order empowers local law enforcement departments across Tennessee to enforce the mandate, with latitude about how each jurisdiction may do so. Lee said violations of the order should be reported to local law enforcement.

In his daily press briefing, Lee also announced the Knoxville Expo Center off Clinton Highway will be turned into a makeshift hospital facility as the state girds for an expected surge in COVID-19 cases that require hospitalization. One computer model predicts that surge will arrive this month, though Lee said exactly when is unknown.

“The month of April stands to be an extremely tough time for our state as we face the potential for a surge in COVID-19 cases,” Lee told reporters. “COVID-19 is an imminent threat and we need you to understand that staying home isn’t an option. It’s a requirement.”

The Expo Center conversion will be one of at least four the state has planned. The overhaul work will be carried out by the Army Corps of Engineers. Similar large buildings in Chattanooga, Memphis and Nashville will also be converted into temporary medical facilities.

“Governor Bill Lee’s Stay at Home Order is a necessary measure to help protect lives in Tennessee and avoid overloading our medical facilities,” Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon said in a statement.

Traffic counts from the state Department of Transportation showed a dropoff in highway travel from March 19 to 29. But starting on the 30th, those figures began to tick up again, Lee said. To the governor, that was an indication Tennesseans weren’t taking his previous stay-home order seriously enough. The governor said he was also given access to data that anonymously tracks cell phone users.

Asked for more detail on the cell phone data collection, Lee said the information didn’t track individual users, but traced movement on the regional level.

Shortly before 5:30 p.m. Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs appeared on Facebook to share his reaction to the governor’s order, beginning with concern over the role cell phone data played in the governor’s decision.

“I applaud the governor for…fulfilling his duty to protect the people of Tennessee according to his best judgement,” Jacobs said. “However, I cannot applaud any government monitoring the movements of its people and mandating virtually everything we’re allowed to do.”

Jacobs reiterated points he has voiced frequently of late: that while COVID-19 is serious, the economic effects of virus are serious, too. Jacobs has cautioned other government leaders to take a lighter hand with stay-home orders and business restrictions. He also expressed concern about what he sees as an erosion of civil liberties in Tennessee and around the country. He also connected an unusual spike in suicides reported last week to despair, fear and job losses caused by COVID-19. A conclusive link has not been confirmed.

Jacobs, Kincannon and Knox County Health Department Director Martha Buchanan are set to meet with Lee in Knoxville Friday to further discuss the executive order and the Expo Center conversion plan.