Party’s over: Governing gets tougher overnight for Lee

By , Daily Memphian Updated: March 30, 2020 9:18 AM CT | Published: March 27, 2020 5:43 PM CT

Early in his second year as chief executive of Tennessee, Bill Lee was finding governing relatively easy. The state budget was loaded, Tennessee had more money in reserves than most lawmakers knew, and he was doling out money right and left for pet projects.

One state lawmaker even lamented recently he was concerned the state was spending too much with a projected $40.9 billion budget, which was cut by nearly $1 billion a week and a half ago when lawmakers realized they were on the cusp of a public health and economic crisis.

Lee defends stopping short of statewide stay-at-home order

All Lee needed was some help from conservative Republicans in his own party to pass a paid family medical leave plan and to give him a break on a refugee resettlement order. Some onlookers even labeled him a Democrat in disguise, though Lee has often said he looks at issues not as an ideologue but based on his personal beliefs.

<strong>Bill Lee</strong>

Bill Lee

In a matter of days, though, items such as abortion restrictions and a permitless carry handgun bill — an initiative that appeared out of the blue seemingly to curry support from the right — fell by the wayside as Lee turned into a wartime governor, fighting the coronavirus.

But while Lee and his new COVID-19 Unified Command have been working overtime amid a state of emergency and executive orders to provide financial support and stem the spread of a hardcore bug that isn’t even alive, some lawmakers say the state’s response has been scattered, at best, sending mixed messages to the public.

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Physicians, meanwhile, call Lee “weak” on leadership for refusing to join about 20 other governors in declaring a statewide “safer at home” order to quell the severity of the pandemic.

Lee and other Republican leaders acknowledge the situation is “liquid” and that strategies can change daily, if not hourly, based on the latest information.

In fact, the governor has certainly made several about-faces.

Early in the coronavirus attack, Lee said state officials had no way of knowing how wide it would spread or how quickly it would cover the state.

On Thursday, March 26, however, three weeks after the state’s first case was confirmed, Lee said he had requested Vanderbilt University Medical Center to put together a model tracking COVID-19 and projecting its movement across the state, an effort to provide the state with information it could use to determine the need for personal protective equipment such as masks and gowns and hospital beds.

Lee: A ‘surge’ is coming

In discussing his hesitancy to declare a statewide “safer at home” order, Lee points out 50% of Tennessee’s 6.9 million residents are under the requirement already because of orders called by city mayors, mainly in Shelby and Davidson counties. He says he’s working closely with mayors and business leaders on an overall strategy to respond to the state’s collapsing economy, as well as five epidemiologists, to get a sense of what direction to take.

On this front, the governor has the unenviable task of coping with a state made up largely of four to five urban areas with large rural spaces in between. On the other hand, with little information about the spread of the virus in those sparsely populated counties, it’s hard to gauge how many people are affected there.

The governor has said several times, however, “Nothing’s off the table.” In other words, he’s open-minded to making a statewide order to stay at home, just not yet.

That’s not good enough for Dr. Aaron Milstone, a Williamson County pulmonary specialist who contends the governor’s failure to issue a “safer at home” order statewide is allowing the pandemic to spread unchecked.

Governor: State working with Vanderbilt on COVID-19 projections

“In three months from now, no one will question the bold measures we are taking to save lives. But there will be plenty of questions if we settle now for half-measures and PR campaigns. Gov. Lee must do more,” Milstone says.

If that weren’t enough, another doctor joining the push for a statewide a stay-at-home order says the Department of Health urged physicians to use Velcro to strap a diaper around their faces if they didn’t have an N95 mask available when seeing patients or doing a flu swab.

Dr. Sonal Gupta, a primary care physician with Heritage Medical Associates in Middle Tennessee, says the department told physicians they could use a diaper, bandana or scarf to “put distance” between themselves and patients when taking swabs or checking them. Gupta is no longer seeing patients at her clinic but talking to them via telemedicine, yet she is convinced her husband, a Vanderbilt University Medical Center physician, will contract the virus, so they’re already taking steps to avoid each other at home.

The same day Gupta told journalists about the health department’s advice, Lee did another about-face. The governor told reporters during his daily press conference that Lowe’s was donating TyVek material suitable for protecting health care providers from patients and that state prison inmates were turning it into gowns. He even introduced a state staffer to model how the garb could be worn.

A few minutes later, pressed by reporters about whether these types of protective devices are acceptable, Lee said: “Fortunately, in Tennessee we’re not having to utilize makeshift. TyVek is a moisture-repellent product that is adequate for a gown. We won’t use TyVek gowns until we’ve run out of the gowns we traditionally use.”

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Lee added: “You hear about a lot of makeshift things happening. But there’s no makeshift happening in our state yet because we’ve stayed ahead of the curve” on masks, face shields, gowns and respirators.

When a doctor has to save someone’s life, though, they’ll do what they have to do, he said.

The situation with coronavirus tests is similar.

Initially, the governor said the state didn’t need to know the total number of negative coronavirus tests because they didn’t provide useful information. He shifted on that a few days later.

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Still, the state is declining to put the number of tests taken in each county on its website, confounding some lawmakers who say the information is vital to helping track the disease. They also say it is important to show whether low numbers in rural counties are misleading.

Legislators are taking a kid gloves approach to the governor, however, in this time of crisis. They know he and his staff are making a Herculean effort to quell the coronavirus.

But they wonder if the state is taking a shotgun approach rather than a cohesive effort. Democrats sent the governor a letter last week making suggestions since lawmakers have been shut out of the fight.

State Sen. Jeff Yarbro, a Nashville Democrat and leader of the Senate Democratic Caucus, says the state’s response seems to be “lagging behind,” at least based on what is coming out of the governor’s briefings. Detailed information and projections about the potential impact are vital to letting people known how the state will respond to a myriad of scenarios, he says.

“I think there are some encouraging anecdotes that we hear with some regularity. But I don’t think that we have a solid understanding of how the state anticipates this virus spreading through the population,” Yarbro says.

With coronavirus surge expected, local leaders withhold key data

While other states already have models showing how many hospital beds, ventilators and intensive care units are available for COVID-19 patients, Tennessee is lacking in the information provided to residents, a step that could allay fear in the populace, Yarbro adds.

“And my frustration right now is whether the governor has just decided that we don’t want to share that information as a state or whether we don’t have that information at hand in a manner to better drive decision-making,” Yarbro says.

Yarbro and several other lawmakers believe this is a time “transparency” would go a long way toward providing a cure. It could also make governing easy again and help Lee build a legacy as a great leader.

COVID-19 in Memphis & Shelby County: March


Bill Lee Jeff Yarbro Dr. Aaron Milstone Dr. Sonal Gupta
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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