Lee rejects idea of statewide mask mandate or another economic shutdown

By , Daily Memphian Updated: July 15, 2020 1:11 PM CT | Published: July 14, 2020 5:38 PM CT

Despite the urging of Senate Democrats, Gov. Bill Lee is not considering a statewide mask mandate to fight the COVID-19 pandemic, even as cases surge.

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“A targeted approach is the best way to do this,” Lee said during a Tuesday press conference at the State Capitol.

The governor said he believes it is important to wear a mask and noted he will be wearing one when he attends the NASCAR All-Star race at Bristol Motor Speedway Wednesday night, July 15, the first live sporting event in the state since March.

He noted some communities are experiencing more cases and a mandate might work there but said a mandate could prove “counterproductive.”

When Lee gave mayors in 89 counties the option for mask mandates more than a week ago, Sumner and Williamson county mayors enacted those requirements. In fact, many businesses won’t allow people to enter without a mask.

Shelby and Metro Nashville mayors also adopted mask mandates.

Senate Democrats are supporting rapid testing and increased contact tracing with thousands of workers; new mask regulations; enforcement of the Tennessee Pledge for businesses; and assistance for people who can’t isolate at home safely.

Yet even though the state saw a 3,300 increase in its case count Monday and added 1,514 Tuesday, Lee and Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey said those numbers have to be taken in context with increased testing and the positivity rate, which has stayed about 9%.

Piercey and the governor contend the state’s hospital capacity is not close to an emergency level. 

The health commissioner also said Tuesday she doesn’t believe “full suppression” of COVID-19 is possible in a democratic society, compared to countries with stricter governments that quelled the virus.

“They have done it with measures Americans wouldn’t tolerate,” she said.

Shelby County and Metro Nashville reverted recently to stricter business rules to keep people from crowding together, yet Lee is not considering such a statewide move.

“I’m not at any point considering closing the economy back down,” he said.

Senate Democrats aren’t calling for an economic shutdown, either. But they said Tuesday they believe people are confused by a patchwork of rules across the state.

“The last two weeks should be a wakeup call that Tennessee has a failed strategy,” state Sen. Jeff Yarbro said during a Tuesday online press conference.

Yarbro, a Nashville Democrat, pointed out cases, hospitalizations and deaths are up across the state and said the governor took “insufficient precautions” to deal with the virus.

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Lee and Piercey both said Tuesday they want children to return to public school classrooms in early August, and the governor said protocol will be put into effect to deal with the spread of the virus to teachers and students.

Yarbro, however, said a “significant change in strategy” will be needed before schools open.

“I don’t think Tennessee parents are going to be willing to send their children back to school on the say-so of Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos,” Yarbro said, referring to threats from the president and education secretary that funding could be cut to school districts that don’t require children to return to school.

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State Sen. Raumesh Akbari agreed with Yarbro, saying a “consistent approach” with statewide action is needed.

“We’re not able to continue with this patchwork policy of suggestions,” Akbari said.

The Memphis Democrat said a statewide mask requirement is needed because it is the best way to curb the spread of the virus. She noted President Trump wore one during a recent event and that Vice President Mike Pence believes masks are important.

“If Texas can do it, certainly Tennessee can do it,” Akbari said, pointing toward the conservative state where the governor mandated masks in public places.

State Sen. Katrina Robinson, a registered nurse who is volunteering her time at a Texas hospital after working in a Manhattan hospital at the height of the pandemic, said Tennessee should look at the examples of New Jersey and Missouri, which refused to reopen certain parts of the economy until they saw 14 consecutive days of decreases in hospitalizations and deaths. Tennessee used the White House guidelines and partially developed its own method for tracking improvements.

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Robinson, a Memphis Democrat, said she doubts Tennessee has the hospital capacity to handle the increasing number of patients. Memphis hospital officials have been preparing to put their surge plans into place in recent days.

“One of the reasons we don’t have widespread compliance is because people are confused. I do one thing in Nashville, I do one thing in Memphis, I do one thing in Weakley County,” Robinson said. “If we have different mayors giving different directions, we’re really confusing the process for our citizens, and that’s why we end up with the numbers we have.”

The senators said mask mandates must be enforced, too, not necessarily with arrests or citations but with police giving out warnings and free masks.

One of Tennessee’s biggest problems is that many people don’t take the disease seriously, the senators said.

Robinson said one lawmaker approached her during the June session of the General Assembly and, knowing she worked at a New York City hospital, said, “So this is not hoax?”

“It’s real, and I think that does have a lot to do with the numbers we’re seeing,” Robinson said.

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Bill Lee Lisa Piercey Jeff Yarbro Raumesh Abkari Katrina Robinson Tennessee coronavirus
Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard is a Nashville-based reporter with more than 30 years of journalism experience as a writer, editor and columnist covering the state Legislature and Tennessee politics for The Daily Memphian.


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