Gov. Bill Lee at a June press press briefing.
During Gov. Bill Lee’s first 14 months in office, he issued 13 executive orders. Since March 1, he’s issued an additional 51, most of them related to COVID-19.
But the large number of orders he’s issued over the last seven months have prompted an inquiry by the legislature, which created the 17-member Ad Hoc Committee to Study Emergency Powers.
Group members have said they won’t examine Lee’s individual orders but rather want to examine if the state’s Emergency Powers Act, enacted with natural disasters or terrorism in mind, goes too far in granting extraordinary powers to a sitting governor.
The first orders (14, 15): Lee declared a state of emergency due to the coronavirus on March 12, about a week after he declared one following the tornadoes in Middle Tennessee—and a day before President Donald Trump issued a nationwide emergency declaration. The order lifts many laws and regulations on private healthcare providers and other industries, including licensing requirements for some professions. It was not a stay-at-home order.
Order 15, signed a week later, superseded Order 14, and lifted regulations on more industries.
Restaurants (17, 29): Lee allowed restaurants to reopen for indoor dining on April 27, citing the economic damage caused by shutdowns. The order recommends restaurants take reasonable precautions to limit the spread of Covid, but doesn’t cap restaurant capacity, as many jurisdictions have done.
“It is essential to their health and welfare to allow Tennesseans to return to work so long as progress in slowing COVID-19 makes it safe to do so,” Order 29 states.
Order 17, effective March 23, prohibited indoor dining and nursing home visits, and closed bars, restaurants, nightclubs and gyms. The order specified that Tennesseans are not required to shelter in place.
Non-emergency surgeries (18, 25, 31): These orders limited non-emergency medical operations, particularly dental procedures, in order to preserve protective equipment and hospital capacity. Lee signed order 31 on April 30 and it expired May 6, allowing healthcare providers to resume non-emergency procedures.
Remote notarization (26, 37, 52, 61, 64): These orders allow the remote notarization and witnessing of legal documents. Lee has renewed this order each month, extending it for a month at a time. Order 64 expires Oct. 30.
Closing and Reopening (38, amending orders 17, 21-23, 27, 29, 30 and 35): Lee closed non-essential businesses for indoor service, requiring all Tennesseans to stay at home unless engaged in essential activity.
Lee lifted many restrictions in early- and mid-May, encouraging a return to work. He allowed many businesses to mostly reopen, encouraging—with not-very-strong language—that they adhere to health guidelines.
Public meetings (16, 34, 51, 60): Lee on March 20 allowed all public meetings to be conducted virtually, without requiring a quorum meet in person. It requires meetings to be broadcast or streamed live, and for video or audio recordings to be published. Order 60 expires Oct. 28, but Lee may extend it again.
Nursing homes (38, 49): Lee prohibited visits to nursing homes and other long-term care facilities March 23, and lifted some of those restrictions in May and June. Nursing homes without positive COVID-19 cases for a month are allowed to welcome visitors, who must provide proof of a recent negative test.
Protest curfews (39-48): Lee set one-day, 10 p.m. or 11 p.m. curfews in Nashville, Memphis and Murfreesboro during the protests in the wake of the police killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd from May 30 to June 7. Seven of the orders targeted Memphis, three Nashville and two Murfreesboro (one order covered all three).
Liability protection (53, 58): Lee gave limited liability protection to healthcare companies with Executive Order 53, protecting them from lawsuits brought by employees who contract covid on the job. He then cancelled the order after signing the Tennessee COVID-19 Recovery Act in August. The law is far more broad than the original order. It provides liability protection to all employers for two years.
Masks (54): In early July—months after many other states—Lee allowed local governments in most counties to issue mask mandates. His order itself was not a mandate; it only went so far as to “urge” the use of masks. The order didn’t apply to six large jurisdictions with their own health departments, as they already had the authority. It expired Aug. 3, returning that authority to Lee and the General Assembly.
High school sports (55): Order 55, which Lee signed July 31, allowed high school sports to resume with few restrictions.
Prison for women (56): With this order, Lee renamed the Tennessee Prison for Women after Debra K. Johnson. He signed the order a day before the one-year anniversary of Johnson’s death. Johnson worked at a penitentiary in West Tennessee, and was assaulted and killed by an inmate who later escaped.
State employees called to active military duty (57): The state will provide special leave and partial pay for state employees who are called from reserve to active military duty for another year. The order extends for a tenth year a benefit established by former Gov. Bill Haslam and continued by Lee last August, but which has not been signed into law.
Asian Carp Advisory Commission (62): Lee established a commission to study the invasive Asian carp species, and to make annual recommendations on how to contain it. The fish have spread into Tennessee from the Mississippi River and threaten to disrupt wildlife food chains. The commission will comprise ten members, including relevant state agency heads and political appointees.
Continued response (63, encompassing extensions and amendments to Orders 36, 49, 50, 54, 55, 59, 60): Nursing home visits are allowed, if social distancing guidelines are followed, effective Oct. 1. Various licensing requirements are lifted to allow the private sector to address the pandemic. Notably, many facilities aren’t subject to inspections. Tennesseans with the virus or symptoms are required to stay home; all others are “urged” to stay home.
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