Grappling with the worst coronavirus outbreak in the nation, Gov. Bill Lee will mandate social gathering restrictions but refuses to require mask-wearing in Tennessee as the deadly illness rampages the state, stretching hospitals to their limits and claiming more than 6,000 lives.
Lee announced a new 10-person public gathering restriction in a live video address Sunday night. He also urged Tennesseans to gather with people only within their household for Christmas and asked employers to allow employees to work from home for the next 30 days. The gathering restrictions, enacted by an executive order expiring Jan. 19, will not apply to at-home events or churches.
“We tried to be as targeted and specific to what we think the actual problem is and not go beyond that,” Lee said on a call with Republican members of the General Assembly ahead of the speech.
Many anticipated the governor would announce a mask mandate in the rare statewide address, but he stopped short of that in favor of making an emotional appeal for voluntary compliance with mask guidelines and limiting social interactions in the coming weeks.
Tennessee on Sunday ranked No. 1 in the country for COVID-19 infections in the past week, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention adjusted for population.
In his public address, Lee described Tennessee as “ground zero for a surge in sickness.”
“We are in a cold, cruel phase of this pandemic,” he said. “It will get worse before it gets better. I know you are tired. But we have got to double down.”
He invoked the words of Winston Churchill during World War II, telling Tennesseans that it would be foolish not to recognize the seriousness of the moment, but “still more foolish to lose heart and courage.”
The Republican governor has long been against a statewide mask mandate, preferring for months to let local government leaders throughout the state determine whether requiring masks was best for their communities.
After the speech, doctors who have been calling for the mask requirement quickly weighed in, saying Lee was doubling down on a failed strategy.
“We need action,” said Dr. Aaron Milstone, a Williamson County physician. “We need concrete steps taken to get the virus under control. We need you to find the political courage to do your part, and stand up.”
Milstone has been vocal against Lee’s COVID-19 approach as part of the group Protect My Care, which receives donations through a Democratic fundraising platform.
Statewide on Saturday, Tennessee recorded a staggering, record-setting 30% positivity rate on coronavirus tests processed.
That same day, first lady Maria Lee tested positive for the virus after experiencing mild symptoms. She will remain at the family home in Williamson County while the governor, who initially tested negative for the virus, quarantines for an undetermined period of time at his state residence in Nashville.
Earlier Sunday, the state’s health commissioner issued a dire warning about hospital capacity, predicting a Christmas surge similar to the Thanksgiving increase would break Tennessee’s hospital system.
Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey said the state has requested assistance from the National Guard to work with medical staff inside two hospitals. Previously, the national guard was used only to provide support at testing sites.
Governor limits gatherings as cases trend upward, resists mask mandate
As part of the new requirements, Tennessee will return to a 10-person limit on public social gatherings, a restriction that was lifted this spring.
Lee for months defied pressure from some in the medical community — including experts in the White House — to implement a statewide mask mandate, leaning firmly on his small-government inclinations.
The governor this summer, however, used his emergency authority to allow county mayors to issue their own mask requirements.
Of the state’s 95 counties, 29, including Tennessee’s most populous counties, currently have mandates. Most rural counties do not, according to data maintained by the Vanderbilt Department of Health Policy.
In its report for Tennessee issued Dec. 13, the White House called for a statewide mask mandate.
“Face masks must be required in all public settings statewide to reduce transmission across the state,” the memo states.
Lee has encouraged Tennesseans to voluntarily wear masks in public, including spending millions of dollars on state marketing campaigns to try to influence behavior, though the outbreak in the past month has become increasingly worse.
Since Dec. 1, average daily deaths have increased 135%, from 37 to 87, while active infections have increased 90%. In just 13 days this month, Tennessee’s cumulative coronavirus deaths surged from 5,000 to more than 6,000.
By contrast, it took from early March to late July for the state to record its first 1,000 deaths from the virus.
Of Tennessee’s 20 counties with the highest positivity rates for coronavirus tests in the past week, only four are under mask mandates.
Doctors want mandate, which Lee knows could cause political blowback
While doctors — including former U.S. Sen. Bill Frist, a Republican — pleaded for months with Lee to enact a mask mandate across the state, the governor argued that citizens taking personal responsibility would result in more compliance with mask guidelines than a requirement.
But numerous studies show both spread of the virus and mortality are reduced with mask mandates, including Tennessee-specific research released in November by Vanderbilt University Medical Center.
The university found counties in the state with mask mandates had “substantially lower death rates” among COVID-19 patients. The CDC reported this fall that data show wearing face masks in public reduces spread of the virus.
Legislative leaders applaud Lee’s approach
A mask mandate likely would generate pushback from a portion of the state’s Republican-dominated legislature, some of whom continue to refuse to wear masks when gathering in large groups.
Despite the governor quickly lifting business restrictions in late spring and vowing not to implement them again, some Republican lawmakers in Tennessee criticize the governor’s early response to the virus, saying he overreacted.
Lee asked for legislators’ support, acknowledging that some wouldn’t fully agree with his decisions.
Lt. Gov. Randy McNally and House Speaker Cameron Sexton both quickly signaled their support for the governor’s strategy of handling the crisis.
McNally, R-Oak Ridge, told Lee on the call before the address that he fully supported the approach. Sexton, R-Crossville, said he was pleased the governor didn’t enact a mask mandate or issue a safer-at-home order.
Democrats in the legislature criticized the address.
“This doesn’t even scratch the surface of what needs to be done to reduce numbers and save lives,” Sen. Raumesh Akbari, D-Memphis, said in a statement on Twitter. “Angry, disappointed, & frustrated.”
Akbari noted that “not all lawmakers” were invited to the briefing to hear about the governor’s plans.
Lee continues only to call for personal responsibility with masks
When asked Thursday about appeals from doctors for Lee to require masks, the governor insisted the health care community was “not unified” in that position.
But in a virtual news conference Friday, doctors who have been calling for Lee to act reiterated their position on the need for a mandate.
The governor on Thursday used his most pointed rhetoric to date about the seriousness of the virus.
“One thing this vaccine will not solve, or will not cure, is selfishness or indifference to our neighbors around us,” Lee said Thursday. “This vaccine will not cure foolish decisions about how we gather. It won’t cure an attitude of a refusal to wear a mask.”
Brett Kelman and Emily West contributed.
Reach Natalie Allison at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @natalie_allison.
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