Coronavirus in Tennessee: Local law enforcement responds to Gov. Lee’s stay-at-home order

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — Law enforcement agencies are responding to Gov. Bill Lee’s Executive Order No. 23 issued Thursday that requires Tennesseans to stay at home unless engaging in essential activity in order to stop the spread of COVID-19.

The executive order comes as an addendum or extension to order nos. 17 and 22, which directed restaurants to conduct carry-out/curbside service, closed gyms, then closed all nonessential businesses and advised safer-at-home measures. Order no. 23 is requiring nonessential personnel to stay at home and nonessential businesses to remain closed through April 14.

RELATED: LIST: What TN businesses, services are ‘nonessential’ vs. ‘essential’ according to Gov. Lee’s Executive Order No. 22

Before we get to law enforcement agencies’ responses, here’s some background to the executive orders and what Gov. Lee has said thus far regarding enforcement.

Gov. Lee said Thursday he had sent out letters to law enforcement agencies across the state regarding the new executive order and was leaving the enforcement methods of the orders up to the agencies.

“We sent an enforcement letter out to law enforcement officials (Wednesday),” Gov. Lee told reporters during the Thursday press conference. “We will watch this over the weekend and over the days ahead and we’ll take the necessary steps for enforcement as we see them.”

The letter sent to police agencies from Gov. Lee’s office Wednesday says under Tennessee state law, with an emergency order enacted under the state code Ann. 58-2-107(f), a governor may direct local law enforcement to take reasonable steps in securing compliance; furthermore, violation of an emergency Executive Order is a class A misdemeanor.

The letter specifically addresses business compliance with the earlier executive orders (17 & 22); as Executive Order No. 23 had not yet been enacted.

Gov. Lee’s letter to law enforcement also asks that law enforcement agencies “utilize sound judgment, restraint, and discretion to first educate and warn your local businesses and establishments in order to provide them all reasonable opportunity to comply.”

Lee reiterated Executive Order No. 23 enforcement of business compliance during the Thursday press conference: “We’ve actually given the authority to law enforcement agencies across the state to actually enforce this in their own ways… to handle it in different ways. Different enforcement teams are available for different areas.

“So we gave them guidance on how we believe — we gave them clear direction that enforcement was appropriate that is something we expect to happen if companies don’t ultimately comply. They will develop their own enforcement specifics in each community, but they’ve been given the directive to enforce.”

Gov. Lee leaves it up to Tennesseans to comply with the order responsibly. He also said Thursday, “We urge Tennesseans to each engage – as I have said for weeks, individual responsibility will win this with us doing that together. We must work together, we must take this seriously. We must stay at home, we must work together, and that is critically important message that I would have for Tennesseans. We’ve made an additional effort today to require that, and that’s important in an effort to save lives right here in Tennessee.”

So, what does all of this mean for individual citizens regarding how local law enforcement plans to respond and enforce the stay-at-home executive order?

That has not been made entirely clear at this point in time, apart from Tennesseans being asked to stay home unless they’re traveling to an essential job or performing an essential activity. Here’s what we know:

Knox County Sheriff’s Office

On Friday, Knox County Sheriff Tom Spangler released also sent out a letter regarding the governor’s executive order.

No specific actions were highlighted or mandated. Spangler did, however, state in his letter: “We as law enforcement don’t want to be the ‘bad guys/gals’ in this situation. Governor Lee has asked that Law Enforcement take action against those in violation of the Stay at Home Orders. He has allowed each agency to use their own discretion.”

Spangler also said he was confident KCSO “will have very few incidents where we must take action, this is because…. We have good people who truly want to do the right thing and now more than ever the RIGHT thing is simply staying at home.”

Knoxville Police Department

Knoxville Police Department released the following statement Friday evening:

“Executive Order 23 is really just an enhancement of Executive Order 22. The Knoxville Police Department and other City regulatory authorities will continue to educate businesses regarding the mandates of the Order and the community regarding essential vs. non-essential travel. We also continue to request the community to remain vigilant in their individual efforts and responsibility in reducing the spread of COVID-19 to family, friends and the greater Knoxville community. As we have previously stated, our preferred option is education of the public, and that education will result in compliance. We will continue to do that in as many venues as possible. If that doesn’t work, then the door is open for more active enforcement, either through City citations or misdemeanor citation.”

BCSO, Maryville, Alcoa, Townsend

The Blount County Sheriff’s Office, Maryville Police Department, Alcoa Police Department and Townsend Police Department issued a joint statement on Friday in response to the the governor’s executive order.

The letter highlights what the executive orders say, which activities mean what and the importance of social distancing.

“Sheriff Berrong, Chief Crisp, Chief Caswell and Chief Condee want to assure citizens that their respective law enforcement officers will NOT be setting up checkpoints to check for travel documents of citizens who are following the guidelines set forth in these executive orders,” the letter states.

“This is a fluid situation and continually changing. We will keep you apprised of updates as they occur.”

Claiborne County Sheriff’s Office

The Claiborne County Sheriff’s Office released a statement Friday night in response to the governor’s executive order. In a letter from Sheriff Bob Brooks, county residents were advised to keep travel down to a minimum; traveling to and from work or for gathering essential items from a store “are completely acceptable,” and “the more people remain socially distant, the less time this takes to go away.”

The sheriff also encouraged increased communication with family and any elderly people because people are not able to go visit as much, “it is crucial to maintain communication of some sort whether it be via a telephone call, email or a simple text message.”

Sheriff Brooks also asked Claiborne County residents to do their part to keep the number of COVID-19 cases down in the county.

WATE 6 On Your Side is working to learn more about enforcement of the governor’s latest executive orders regarding COVID-19. We will update this story as we learn more.

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