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Some Tennessee counties are issuing "safer at home" orders. Why can't all of them?

In Knox County, the safer at home directive closed non-essential businesses and asked people to stay home whenever possible.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — On Monday, the Knox County Health Department issued a "safer at home" order. All non-essential businesses are shut down for two weeks and officials are asking people to stay home as much as possible.

Grocery stores, pharmacies, medical facilities and restaurants offering to-go options, as well as a handful of other businesses, will stay open.

Over the weekend, hundreds of physicians signed a letter asking Gov. Bill Lee to issue a "safer at home" or "shelter in place" order statewide to slow the spread of COVID-19. 

So why haven't more counties issued a similar directive?

The answer is simple: most can't.

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Credit: WBIR

Tennessee state code says the commissioner of health has the power to declare quarantine whenever they "determine the welfare of the public requires it."

In addition, county health officers can order quarantine if they find "that such control is necessary to protect the public health from an epidemic."

But of the state's 95 county health departments, only six are operated by local governments. The other 89 operate under the direct supervision of the Tennessee Department of Health, according to TDH. 

That means only the six independently-run health departments in Davidson, Hamilton, Knox, Madison, Shelby and Sullivan counties can enact and enforce their own quarantine policies. 

So far, Shelby, Davidson and Knox counties have issued "safer at home" orders.

RELATED: 'Safer at Home' still means you can go outside while keeping safe distance from others

RELATED: "Safer at Home" order issued by Knox County Health Department

Credit: WBIR
Three of the six metro health departments issued "safer at home" directives.

"Please stay home as much as you can to decrease the risk of illness to yourself, your family and people in the community," said Dr. Martha Buchanan, director of the Knox County Health Department. "Safer at home means we're just encouraging you to stay at home as much as possible."

If Knox County residents don't follow the safer at home order, Dr. Buchanan said a shelter in place order like the one issued in California could be the next step.

"Shelter in place means you don't leave," Dr. Buchanan said. "Those decisions will be made in concert with the local government and state government. And those are really significant decisions and something we'd really like to avoid."

So far, Gov. Lee has not announced any plans to issue a statewide stay at home order. Instead, the governor closed schools, bars, dine-in restaurants and exercise facilities in hopes of protecting Tennesseans and the economy. 

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