NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Businesses in 89 of Tennessee's 95 counties will no longer have to adhere to social distancing guidelines, Gov. Bill Lee announced Tuesday, even though cases of COVID-19 in the state have been persistently high.
The Republican governor said he would lift all virus-related limits on businesses and social gatherings for most of the state. The action, which takes effect Thursday, notably does not apply to Tennessee's six populous counties with locally run health departments: Sullivan, Knox, Hamilton, Davidson, Madison and Shelby counties. They can continue implementing their own restrictions.
Shelby County, which includes Memphis, last week removed occupancy restrictions for all businesses, after limiting them to operating at 50% of capacity for months. Social distancing guidelines, such as keeping customers 6 feet away from each other, still apply, officials said.
In Nashville, officials say the city will soon allowing certain events to have up to 500 people conditional on the health department's approval starting Oct. 3. Bars and restaurants may operate at 50% capacity but must close by 11 p.m. Retail stores can operate up to 75% capacity.
According to data kept by The Associated Press, there were about 287 new cases per 100,000 people in Tennessee over the past two weeks, which ranks 13th in the country for new cases per capita. The state has seen at least 2,389 virus-released deaths.
"We were one of the last states to shut down and one of the first ones to open up, and it's been very important to me that we take a targeted approach that is not overreaction, but that is actually a reaction to what's happening on the ground," Lee said at a news conference Tuesday.
He added that the removal of the business restrictions doesn't "remove the affirmation for business owners that they should follow safe practices."
The governor said that he was ending limits on social gathering sizes because they were "unnecessarily complex" to keep in place, adding that gatherings are "not one-size-fits-all" and that people have learned how to assess risk and protect themselves and others from the virus.
The six larger counties have power under state law to issue their own directives on businesses and venues, the governor's office said. Lee said the governor has the authority to suspend existing state law, but he hasn't in this case.
Lee on Tuesday also announced he would again extend the state's emergency order to battle the coronavirus pandemic.
He had initially imposed the state of emergency on March 12 in order to free up funding and relax rules regarding the treatment and containment of COVID-19. He extended the order through October on Tuesday, the day before it was set to expire.
The moves come amid some pushback from Republican lawmakers who have been critical of the executive branch's powers under a state of emergency.
Tennessee was one of the first states to reopen its economy despite objections from health officials and Democratic lawmakers. Lee has since vowed he won't shut down businesses again and has rebuffed calls to enforce a statewide mask mandate.
Instead, Lee recently chided a request from Nashville for an additional $82.6 million of federal funding and heavily criticized the city's strict regulations put in place in an attempt to curb the coronavirus pandemic. Nashville leaders have credited the social distancing rules as key reasons the city has seen a drop in cases as rural areas have struggled to keep the virus under control.
The conflict has resulted in a back-and-forth between political leaders, with Republicans and Democratic lawmakers accusing each other of misspending virus relief funds.
The state of emergency will continue to urge — but does not require — people to wear masks when out in public and urges limited activity, maintain social distancing and staying home whenever possible.
For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including life-threatening pneumonia.
AP reporter Adrian Sainz contributed from Memphis, Tennessee.