NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — Governor Bill Lee gave a statewide address Sunday night asking Tennesseans to wear masks and avoid gatherings with anyone other than their immediate household in hopes of avoiding another surge of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths.
In the days after Thanksgiving, Tennessee has seen COVID-19 cases skyrocket breaking new records for cases, hospitalizations and deaths. The day before his address, the Tennessee Health Department reported a 30.46% test positivity rate. The World Health Organization recommends the positivity rate be below 5%.
The governor signed Executive Order 70, which lasts until Jan. 20, 2021. It limits indoor public gatherings to 10 people and does not allow spectators at K-12. Collegiate and professional sports are "subject to the rules, protocols, or guidelines of their respective institutions and governing bodies."
The order strongly encourages businesses to allow employees to work from home remotely and "to take steps to the greatest extend practicable" to accomplish that.
The order does not include weddings, funerals or churches. However, it states that places of worship are "strongly encouraged" to continue using virtual or online services and gatherings and postpone weddings or funerals.
The limitation on social gatherings also does not apply to venues that may host multiple social gatherings of fewer than 10 people, as long as they are social distanced. It also does not place any restrictions on restaurant or bar capacity.
Gov. Lee's address was made hours after Health Commissioner Dr. Lisa Piercey held a briefing about the COVID-19 surge and the state's hospital capacity.
"If we have another surge after Christmas or New Year like we did over Thanksgiving, it will completely break our hospitals," said Piercey.
It also came two days after physicians from the group Protect My Care pleaded with Lee to issue a statewide mask order as cases, deaths and hospitalizations surge across the state. Although Lee has emphasized the necessity of mask wearing to mitigate the spread of the virus, he has resisted continued calls to issue a statewide mandate and continued to do so Sunday night.
"Many think a statewide mandate would improve mask wearing, many think it would have the opposite effect. This has been a heavily politicized issue. Please do not get caught up in that and don’t misunderstand my belief in local government on this issue. Masks work and I want every Tennessean to wear one," said Gov. Lee.
He continued by explaining that 70% of the state is currently under a local mask requirement. "Because of that, 80% of Tennesseans report they wear their masks most or all of the time and I thank them for doing this."
He went on to ask Tennesseans to use their "two weapons" against the virus for the next 30 days: "only gather with your household and wear a mask."
Nashville's COVID-19 Task Force Chairman, Dr. Alex Jahangir, took voiced his concern over a lack of a mask mandate on social media.
"Limitations of gatherings is a good step but a statewide mask mandate is needed. I implore everyone in our state to do our part. In Nashville, 7700 residents are currently infected with COVID and we are ranked 45th out of the 95 counties in disease activity. We now could be looking into a post-christmas surge unless all Tennesseans stay gone, social distance, and wear our masks. As Gov Lee and Medical Professionals have say masks work so its one us to do this now."
Dr. Aaron Milstone with Protect My Care responded to the governor's press conference saying in a press release, "Gov. Lee, this is no time for half measures, loopholes or symbolic gestures. We need action. 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."
Speaker Cameron Sexton put his full support behind the governor's decision. Sexton released the following statement Sun. night:
“I greatly respect Gov. Lee, his authority and his desire to do what he believes is best for Tennessee and for its citizens. I fully support the governor’s approach to not place further restrictions on our businesses through lockdowns or another safer at home order. For several months, businesses across this state have demonstrated they can safely and successfully reopen - both for their employees and for their customers. Our recent increase in cases is not the result of people dining out, shopping, or from citizens safely returning to work. It is directly correlated to the Thanksgiving holiday.
As we prepare for Christmas, I strongly urge everyone to use extra caution when spending time with their families. Wearing masks in public, continuing to social distance, hand washing and limiting social gathering sizes are all part of the correct path forward, and these measures will enable Tennesseans to safely and joyfully celebrate the holiday season.
Our country was conceived in liberty; I applaud the governor’s continued stand for individual freedoms and against “Big Brother” government solutions. I believe in Tennessee and its citizens, and I know we will all take the appropriate measures to protect ourselves, our families, and our neighbors.”
COVID-19 cases and deaths hit a record high Friday, making December the worst month of the pandemic in Tennessee so far. As of December 17, data compiled by the COVID Tracking Project shows Tennessee as the state with the biggest case increase by percentage.