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To combat the growing spread of the coronavirus, Gov. Bill Lee has issued a statewide order limiting all Tennessee bars and restaurants to takeout, drive-thru and delivery services only.
Under the order, establishments may sell alcohol by takeout or delivery, if it is sold with food, to those who are 21 and older.
The order also prohibits social gatherings of more than 10 people and orders gyms to close. Visits to nursing homes and retirement homes are limited to “essential care.”
The order goes into effect at midnight Monday and lasts through April 6.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has created both an economic and a health crisis and our response must continue to address both aspects,” Lee said in a statement Sunday. “Our goal is to keep the public, especially vulnerable populations, safe while doing everything possible to keep Tennesseans in a financially stable position.”
The decision comes in the wake of a more restrictive order in Nashville that closed all non-essential businesses and told residents to stay home. The governor’s order also comes two days after Lee said he did not intend to use such drastic tactics and questioned the effectiveness of government mandates.
“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.
As of Sunday morning, Tennessee had detected 371 cases of coronavirus and two deaths caused by the virus. The second death was confirmed by John Howser, a spokesman for Vanderbilt University Medical Center, who said a patient with “underlying health complications” died at the hospital Saturday. The patient was from a county adjacent to Davidson County, Howser said.
The executive order is the most drastic step taken by the Lee administration to combat the coronavirus so far, but it stops short of what some other state leaders have done. Governors in California, Nevada and Illinois have issued orders closing non-essential businesses and requiring all residents to stay home or shelter in place. In contrast, Lee’s executive order specifically states that it “does not mandate sheltering in place” or “prohibit persons from visiting places necessary to maintain health and economic well-being.”
Lee: ‘Nothing is ever off the table’
The governor’s order comes mere days after Lee said he didn’t want to use government mandates to stop the virus, but he also stressed that all options were being considered and decisions changed daily.
During a news briefing Friday, Lee said he did not plan to mandate businesses or churches to close and instead would strike a “tremendous balance” between protecting the public and preserving the economy.
Lee also questioned the enforcement of ordering people not to gather.
“We are never going to be able to mandate people’s behavior in their homes and in their yards and in their neighborhoods, in part because you never can enforce the behavior that you mandate,” Lee said. “But nothing is ever off the table.”
Others have called on the governor to take bolder action.
Nashville Councilwoman Emily Benedict, in a guest column in The Tennessean, called on Lee to follow in the footsteps of other governors by issuing a statewide stay-at-home order. Doctors and mayors asked for a similar order in two letters sent to the governor this week.
“It is our estimation that we have little time to ‘flatten the curve’ on the current situation,” the doctors’ letter states. “China and South Korea have made great progress by imposing restrictive measures. We ask that Tennessee do the same.”
Lee spokesman Gillum Ferguson said Sunday that Lee’s shift in response came from evaluating the situation each day to determine the best approach to both Tennessean’s health and financial well-being.
“This is the right thing at this time,” Ferguson said. “These decisions are hard, and there is a cost to them. We want to make the right decision that can safeguard health while also allowing people to receive a paycheck so they are able to keep food on the table.”
‘We figured it was only a matter of time’
Jeff Robinson, co-owner of Blackhorse Pub and Brewery, which has locations in Clarksville and Knoxville, said he saw this coming.
“We figured it was only a matter of time,” he said. “We’ve already shifted to doing more to-go; it’s been about 52% of our business for the last two days, Friday and Saturday.”
Because of social distancing and fewer people coming in to the dining room, Blackhorse has been shifting computer terminals and phone lines and moving tables so it can prep more to-go orders. The restaurants have been doing beer to-go already, relying on their canning operation, based in Alcoa. They sold 55 cases of beer Saturday out of the Clarksville restaurant alone, and they also have been selling growlers – sealed glass jugs of beer that last a couple of days.
But the shift from in-person dining to all takeout will cut business down to about 25% of normal sales. And that has a big impact on the 155 people Blackhorse normally employs statewide.
“The damage it’s wreaking on our staff is really bad,” Robinson said. “We can keep some people working, but we’re way short of keeping everybody working. Every small business staff is getting crushed.”
Blackhorse was one of the businesses that suffered damage in the tornado that tore through downtown Clarksville in January 1999. And it was the first major business to reopen downtown, paving the way for others to come back.
“This is similar to the tornado, only it’s slow motion instead of overnight,” Robinson said. “The only positive we get is that when it’s all over, at least our facilities will still be there.”
Tennessee counties make similar declarations
In Murfreesboro, Mayor Shane McFarland declared a local state of emergency Saturday that closed gyms and bars and limited restaurants to takeout and delivery.
Slick Pig BBQ, which has locations in Murfreesboro and Smyrna, already had made staffing cuts after a major drop in revenue over the past two weeks.
“We’ve seen a loss of 50% revenue at both stores,” manager Matt Nelson said . “I am very worried about my employees and their immediate needs financially. We’ve had to make some really hard decisions on potential layoffs … and none of it is their fault.”
Nancy DeGennaro in Murfreesboro and Chris Smith in Clarksville contributed to this report. Brett Kelman is the health care reporter for The Tennessean. He can be reached at 615-259-8287 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @brettkelman.
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