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Gov. Lee Accelerates COVID Restrictions as Traffic Returns to Roads

Gov. Bill Lee at a video press conference on Thursday.
Gov. Bill Lee at a video press conference on Thursday.
Gov. Bill Lee at a video press conference on Thursday.
Gov. Bill Lee at a video press conference on Thursday.

Listen to an audio version of the story.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee says a sudden increase of cars on the road persuaded him to issue his sternest Stay-at-Home Order yet in the race to curb the spread of COVID-19. 

Doctors statewide have been urging him to enact tougher measures, but until this week, Gov. Lee left the decision to close non-essential businesses up to local authorities. 

"While safer-at-home measures showed a steep drop off in vehicle movement from March 13 through the 29th," he said, "the data beginning March 30th indicates that travel is trending upwards again."

The Tennessee Department of Transportation noted the increase in vehicular movement by way of data gleaned anonymously from cell phone tracking. More people getting out on the road, says the governor, could indicate a growing complacency to warnings. 

As of Thursday, more than 2,800 Tennesseans have tested positive for the coronavirus. Thirty-two people have died. 

Officials say this is the beginning of the surge that will likely overwhelm hospitals in the next three weeks. The Army Corps of Engineers is building a temporary overflow hospital at Memphis' Gateway Shopping Center and another in Nashville. 

Even with dire predictions, details are fuzzy about the significance of the governor's latest order, which gives local law enforcement discretion to issue warnings and citations, primarily to non-essential businesses that refuse to close. The governor is still recommending that authorities take a measured approach. But as far as restrictions imposed on individuals -- a likely cause of some traffic -- the order is unclear.

And the cell phone data shows that many residents refuse to stay put. 

"We clearly saw data in the last two or three days that changed the movement of Tennesseans," Lee said. "And that was very worrisome, and it was also very dangerous. And that is why we took these additional steps. It's hard to know why that happened. We just know that it has."

Copyright 2020 WKNO

A native "Florida Man," Christopher started in this business as a copy clerk at the renowned St. Petersburg Times before persuading editors to let him write. He moved to Memphis in 2001 to cover arts and entertainment at the Commercial Appeal. Since then, he has contributed to nearly every publication in Shelby County, writing features on everything from the Civil War to Civil Rights. Also, Elvis... a lot of Elvis.