NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Governor Bill Lee signed Executive Order 63 on Tuesday, which extended emergency guidelines in Tennessee through Oct. 30 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Local governments will still be allowed to institute mask mandates, according to a release from state officials. However, some restrictions on businesses and gathering sizes in 89 counties have been removed.
"It's important to remember while we lift business restrictions, we don’t remove the affirmation to business owners that they should follow safe practices,” Lee said.
Executive Order 63 removed caps on gathering sizes. Officials said they were overly complex and did not account for critical considerations like venue capacity and physical characteristics. Previous guidelines also did not consider kinds of activities in buildings and whether they were indoor or outdoor, according to a release.
Tennessee Department of Health Director Dr. Lisa Piercey said they will continue to encourage people and businesses to follow the core actions of wearing masks and social distancing.
"Just because the restrictions go away, doesn’t mean best practices will go away," Piercey said.
The order also says that employers, businesses and venues are still expected to comply with the Tennessee Pledge to operate safely, which has been updated as more has been learned about the COVID-19 virus. The pledge is a plan to help businesses reopen safely during the pandemic and recommends businesses practice social distancing and follow federal guidelines.
Counties that have their own county-run health departments will still be able to issue additional guidelines for businesses and venues.
The executive order also says that people with the coronavirus, or with symptoms of it, are required to stay at home and that employers cannot require employees to work if they have COVID-19. It also urges people to wear masks when in places they will close to others.
The order provides a framework to allow people to safely visit nursing homes and allows for senior centers to reopen. However, capacity must be limited to allow for social distancing, according to a release.
Take-out alcohol sales will continue to be allowed. The order also increased opportunities for people to work remotely when they can, according to officials.
During a state press conference Tuesday, Lee and Piercey highlighted efforts being taken currently to further prevent the spread of COVID-19, putting rural areas in the spotlight as cases continue to rise in those communities.
While cases have trended downward in the larger metropolitan areas -- leading to lower numbers overall reported in the state since July -- rural areas have seen the reverse. Many are dealing with an alarming sustained growth in COVID-19 cases, and Piercey said it's of particular concern because rural communities tend to be older on average, and comorbidities such as diabetes, obesity and high blood pressure known to significantly increase the risk of developing life-threatening symptoms and other comorbidities with COVID-19 are more widespread in these communities.
Another looming concern is the upcoming flu season. While stopping short of saying they are anticipating it happening, Lee said a 'twindemic' of both COVID-19 and influenza spiking at the same time would put a serious strain on the health care system. At the same time, people tend to spend much more time indoors in close contact with other people during fall and winter, and these habits are attributed to why common colds and the flu normally spread and peak during the winter. The same would hold true with COVID-19, given it has primarily spread through close contact indoors.
Lee said the state will be keeping a close eye on hospital capacity and case trends to determine if new actions are needed, should serious COVID-19 and flu cases rise together and begin overwhelming hospital ICUs. In the meantime, he said the current trends support relaxing restrictions on businesses and gatherings.
Governor Lee also signed Executive Order 64, which extends provisions that allow for remote notarization and witnessing of documents. It also extended an order that allows for electronic government meetings, including a requirement for live broadcasts of electronic meetings to the public, according to officials.