Shortly before Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee sent word to state legislators late Wednesday morning that he would allow some close-contact businesses like barbershops and hair salons to reopen on May 6, a district attorney general said that he was refusing to prosecute violations of the law under the governor’s executive order.
Steve Crump, district attorney general for Tennessee’s 10th Judicial District — which includes the southeastern Tennessee counties of Bradley, McMinn, Monroe and Polk, said in an announcement Wednesday morning that he has “great respect” for Gov. Lee but would decline to prosecute businesses that choose to reopen in defiance of the governor’s executive order.
“I cannot in good conscience, and with fidelity to my oath, allow what I believe to be unconstitutional criminal proceedings to take place,” Crump said.
While restaurants reopened their dining rooms at 50% capacity on Monday, and retail stores that had been shuttered were permitted to reopen on Wednesday, Gov. Lee issued a new executive order on Tuesday that left the closure of close-contact businesses open-ended — laying the groundwork for those businesses to perhaps be closed through the month of May, although Lee announced earlier on Tuesday that gyms can reopen on Friday.
The result was a groundswell of anger from small business owners impacted by the governor’s order, and their customers. The order came as a surprise to state lawmakers who had anticipated the governor allowing those close-contact businesses to reopen in days, not weeks. Shortly after Crump’s announcement, Lee reached out to state lawmakers who have been pressuring his office — including State Sen. Ken Yager, R-Kingston — to tell them he was allowing some of those close-contact businesses to reopen on May 6.
However, specific details haven’t been provided; they’re expected at Gov. Lee’s media briefing on Thursday. There has been no word on whether the governor’s revised guidance will permit only some of those impacted businesses to open, or all of them.
In the meantime, Crump said that the executive order is unfair.
“As it currently stands, Knox County is poised to open many businesses on Friday, May 1,” Crump said. “Those same businesses will still be closed in the 10th Judicial District by the order of the governor. For example, a barber in Knox County can open on Friday, but the barbers in the counties and towns of this district will still be prohibited from working. The same would be true of many other ‘close contact personal services’ and other businesses such as theaters and bowling alleys. Likewise, a restaurant can have half of their dining room filled, while a group of more than 10 friends cannot meet in a public park to eat together.
“I do not believe that someone should be prosecuted in this district for trying to earn a living doing a job that is legal and ‘permitted’ just a few miles up the road,” Crump continued. “Nor do I believe that the prosecution of 12 friends eating dinner together in a home in two groups of six should be prosecuted, while if they did the same thing in a restaurant dining room, they would be free of criminal exposure.”
Crump went on to say that prosecuting businesses or individuals who are in violation of the governor’s executive order would undermine public confidence in the justice system.
“I also do not believe that our citizens would stand for such an outcome,” he said. “Many of our citizens are about to go to simply go back to work to save their livelihoods, their homes and their economic existence. They are about to ignore the executive orders. Therefore, I will not criminally enforce the executive orders on that basis. There cannot be two standards of criminal justice in this state. It is not constitutional, nor is it just.”
Crump closed by calling on every citizen to act responsibly to prevent the spread of coronavirus.