Gov. Lee

Gov. Bill Lee on Monday announced that he was extending his stay at home order, which was set to expire Tuesday, through the end of the month.

His goal is to begin reopening the economy in May, he said. Unemployment claims have spiked by record amounts since March as employers across sectors have laid off hundreds of thousands of Tennesseans.

“Our economy cannot stay shut down for months on end,” Lee said. “An open-ended economic shutdown is unsustainable for Tennessee families.”

Lee’s decision to extend his order came after urging from Nashville Mayor John Cooper and others, as well as guidance from Vanderbilt University Medical Center researchers who said relaxing coronavirus precautions prematurely could result in an unmanageable surge in COVID-19 cases.

The governor is setting up a working group of government officials, doctors and industry leaders who are tasked with figuring out how exactly to reopen the economy without jeopardizing progress made to date in “flattening the curve” of the disease’s spread. Mark Ezell, commissioner of the state Department of Tourist Development, is leading the new group.

Though Lee wants to reopen some businesses next month, he said doing so would look different from before the virus first was identified in Tennessee early last month. Physical distancing must continue until a vaccine is widely available, Lee said, which could take as long as 18 months.

And employers must “reimagine how to conduct business,” Lee added, including by incorporating physical distancing and protective equipment into the workplace.

Antibody tests, which are supposed to determine if an individual has already recovered from COVID-19 and is therefore temporarily immune, will be an “integral part of reopening our economy,” said state Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey. But the state does not expect to get those tests until late April or early May, and Piercey warned that they have so far proved to be not entirely reliable. The Vanderbilt scientists also said that the state does not yet have the mass testing or contact tracing capacity necessary to relax precautions.  

Though Lee is encouraging his administration to begin working on reopening the economy, he cautioned against relaxing too much, lest “this disease could come roaring back.”