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#FreeTN group protests to reopen state; health officials urge caution

The order, initially put in place on March 31, closed all non-essential businesses in an effort to stop the spread of COVID-19 and was extended through April 30.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Protesters lined up outside of West Town Mall in Knoxville in support of the #FreeTN movement on Sunday, April 19.

The group wants the Tennessee state government to reopen businesses and allow workers to go back to their jobs after the statewide Stay at Home order was extended last week. 

It was one of several protests across the state -- 10News' affiliate WSMV reported that hundreds of #FreeTN protesters gathered in Nashville Sunday.

The order, initially put in place on March 31, closed all non-essential businesses in an effort to stop the spread of COVID-19. 

RELATED: Gov. Lee extends Stay at Home order through April 30, announces plan to reopen Tennessee economy in phases, starting May

Since the pandemic made its way to Tennessee, the state has seen a record-breaking spike in unemployment applications.

"It's time for us to get back to work," small business owner Vince Thompson told 10News. "I think there's a way to protect the vulnerable and still let the rest of us who are not vulnerable get back to work."

RELATED: State moves weekly unemployment certification to staggered schedule

RELATED: Tennessee new weekly unemployment claims down, but still far above pre-pandemic levels

Governor Bill Lee said there are plans to reopen the state economy in phases starting in May, but some Tennesseans want relief to come sooner.

"Our whole neighborhood is affected by this. Most of us are furloughed. We're going to lose our houses. Small businesses are going under left and right," said Ashley Masengill, who was participating in the protest. "We don't want to live off the government. We want our jobs back. We want our lives back."

As states across the nation work to handle these economic concerns, health officials stress the importance of social distancing and being careful about how states open back up.

RELATED: How social distancing can stop the quick spread of COVID-19

"If we open up too quickly and if everybody starts interacting too quickly, we are going to be spreading the virus more quickly," said Charity Menefee, director of communicable and environmental disease for the Knox County Health Department. "We're going to get more cases and we're going to spike up."

Robust testing is another critical component of safely re-opening businesses in the state.

"We need to be able to rapidly diagnose people that have COVID-19," Menefee said. "That really helps us wrap our arms around what's happening in our community in a better way than we've been able to with limited testing capacity."

As of Sunday, the Tennessee Department of Health said it had received results for 97,098 people, up from 90,586 the day before. Those numbers are expected to increase after more than 11,000 people were tested this weekend.

Credit: WBIR

RELATED: 7,070 confirmed cases of coronavirus in Tennessee, including 3,344 recoveries & 148 deaths

Even as many face economic troubles, studies suggest most Americans are not quite ready to go back to normal amid the coronavirus pandemic.

A recent Gallup poll shows four out of five Americans want to wait and see what develops further with the virus before resuming their normal routines.

"The real issue, to me is not how does government behave, but instead how people behave," said Dr. Bill Fox, a professor of economics at the University of Tennessee. "Suppose we open up the restaurants and say they can be at 50 percent capacity. That makes it possible, but the real question is, will people go in there and fill it to 50% capacity?"

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