NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee declared Tuesday that COVID-19 is no longer a statewide public health crisis, saying he is removing the option for most local governments to mandate masks in public and urging a few big counties with restrictions like mask requirements to remove them on their own by Memorial Day.
The Republican's message comes as the state faces a public more hesitant of the COVID-19 vaccine than the rest of the country as a whole. Tennessee sits in the bottom three for its percentage of adults with at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose, at 42.8%, compared to the national rate of 53.9%, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Lee said a marketing campaign to promote the new vaccines is coming soon, but he said it's not underway yet because the vaccine has just become widely available in recent weeks.
The governor, who is up for reelection next year, said his attention is now turning to helping the economy recover. And as for COVID-19, he said "we have to learn to live with it just like we do any risk.”
“It’s time for celebrations and weddings and conventions and concerts and parades and proms and everything in between, to happen without limits on gathering sizes or other arbitrary restrictions on those events,” Lee said at the news conference Tuesday.
Tennessee joins a number of states peeling away their remaining COVID-19 restrictions. At least six states — Alabama, Iowa, Mississippi, Montana, North Dakota and Texas — have lifted mask mandates, though some states never implemented them. In Texas, businesses reopened at 100% capacity last month.
Meanwhile, Nashville's city-county government, which is one of six counties allowed to issue their own public health orders without the state's permission, is keeping its indoor mask mandate for now.
Memphis’ legal department was looking at what effects Lee’s request could have on a mask requirement ordinance there, said Doug McGowen, the city’s chief operating officer and a member of the COVID-19 task force in Shelby County, which has a countywide mask mandate as well. McGowen said it could be a few weeks before the city would lift its mandate.
“It’s clear that in some communities, where they have a very high level of vaccination, that it’s probably reasonable for people to request that,” McGowen said during a Tuesday news conference. “But remember, our percentage is not as high as some other communities. So, we’re not there yet, to the point where it’s reasonable to lift a mask requirement."
Nashville announced Tuesday that it will lift all other restrictions on capacity for businesses and gatherings starting May 14, saying that's six weeks from when the vaccine became available to all adults in the city — the amount of time it takes for the slowest vaccine to kick in fully.
Knox County, which includes Knoxville, will let its mask requirement expire Tuesday night, Mayor Glenn Jacobs' office said. The last day for the mandate in Hamilton County, which includes Chattanooga, is Wednesday.
Afrer Lee's announcement, some school districts, including Hamilton, clarified that they can and will keep requiring masks for now.
Throughout the pandemic, which has killed more than 12,100 people in Tennessee, Lee brushed aside pressure to implement a statewide mask mandate, but did leave open the option for individual counties. In 89 of the 95 counties, there have not been virus-related limits on businesses and social gatherings since last fall, when Lee lifted them.
Lee has also said Tennessee was among the last states to implement stay-at-home orders amid the virus last spring, and one of the first to reopen.
There were 268 new cases of COVID-19 reported per 100,000 people in Tennessee over the past two weeks, ranking 18th in the country, according to Johns Hopkins University researchers.
Lee said Tennessee will remain in a state of emergency for “deregulatory issues” with health care and due to federal funding requirements.
Lee even said he is setting aside the “Tennessee Pledge” — a set of state suggestions for precautions businesses could take during COVID-19.
“These guidelines will today be officially retired in order to send a clear message: that Tennesseans now know how to manage their own day-to-day operations without a government playbook, even if it was a voluntary one,” Lee said.
Sainz contributed from Memphis, Tennessee.