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 the new gathering restriction in a video address Sunday night, urging Tennesseans only to gather within their household for Christmas and asking employers to allow workers to work from home. The restrictions 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 to members of the General Assembly.
Many anticipated the governor would announce a mask mandate in the rare statewide address, but he will stop 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.
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.
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.
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.
A mask mandate probablwould 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.