Bill Lee

Gov. Bill Lee on Monday ordered nonessential businesses closed across the state, the latest in a series of incremental steps designed to stem the spread of COVID-19.

But Lee did not go as far as doctors across the state have called for him to do. Instead of issuing a statewide "stay at home" order, he said Monday that he was issuing a "strong urging" to individual Tennesseans because, he said, "it is deeply important that we protect personal liberties."

"With personal liberty comes personal responsibility," he added.

In response to questions about the need for additional measures, the governor pointed out that much of the state, including Nashville, is already under "stay at home" orders, due to declarations from local officials.

Nashville Mayor John Cooper issued an order closing nonessential businesses on March 22, when the state had confirmed fewer than 400 cases of coronavirus. With that number nearing 2,000, Lee followed suit. (The governor had previously ordered gyms, bars and dine-in restaurants to close, and banned gatherings of more than 10 people.)

Cooper's order "directs" residents to stay home unless engaged in essential activities, while Lee's order "urges" Tennesseans to do the same. Lee said he was sending a "strong message to Tennesseans."

Lee has proved reluctant to issue mandates for businesses and individuals throughout the crises, which first reached the state officially earlier this month, instead relying on encouragement and "individual responsibility." On March 16, he urged schools statewide to close through the end of the month, which they did. Now, he’s asking them to remain closed until April 24.

But as case numbers — and public pressure — have continued to increase, the governor has taken more and more aggressive steps.  

"The storm is passing," Lee said Monday. "We don't know where we are exactly in the line of this storm, ... but it is passing."