Football, masks and messaging, Lee talks state’s COVID response

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee answers questions concerning the state's response to the coronavirus Monday, March 16, 2020, in Nashville, Tenn.

Even as Tennessee was reporting a record number of new cases Monday, Gov. Bill Lee said there are many things to be encouraged about in the battle against coronavirus.

“Our death rate per capita continues to be relatively low,” Lee said. “We’re the 16th largest state in the country and for most of the pandemic we’ve been about 40th in death rate per capita.”

The governor said those numbers can change and have gone up recently but remain relatively positive.

Lee also pointed to hospital capacity as a relative positive.

“Our hospital capacity, while climbing, remains workable,” Lee said. “We have capacity in our hospitals in terms of beds. That’s one of the numbers that’s more important.”

Lee discussed the delegation of the decision to mandate the wearing of masks to local governments. Most county mayors in East Tennessee, including Hamblen and others, have declined to issue a mask mandate. In East Tennessee, Washington and Sevier counties have mandated the wearing of masks. Reportedly, Greene County will do the same.

“I’ve always been a guy who, whenever possible, giving authority to the local districts is really the way to do it,” he said, “especially to elected officials. They understand the reality on the ground a lot better than anyone else, particularly the people in Nashville.”

Lee said he is shying away from mandates because he doesn’t feel they are sustainable over time.

“I want to encourage people to adopt habits rather than be heavy handed and mandate. I want to institute things that are sustainable. We’re going to have this virus a long time. You can’t shut down (forever),” he said. “We’ve asked Tennessee to do a lot of things over the last four months, and we forced them to do some things.”

Lee added he plans on allowing local school districts to take the lead as the time to return to school swiftly approaches.

“Our goal is to get kids back in school but do that in a safe way,” he said. “Kids learn best in school. Our department of education is working tirelessly to give school districts what they need.”

Lee said there are other reasons to get kids back in school saying educators agree students do better physically, emotionally and educationally in the school.

Lee said the goal is to get kids back in school but ultimately it is a district decision.

Lee said he’s addressing the issue of Tennesseans not wearing masks or following other CDC recommended guidelines with messaging.

“Everywhere I go, I talk about how important it is people protect themselves and their families,” he said. “Masks are not a political issue. Doctors have been wearing them for hundreds of years because they prevent the spread of disease.

“We can encourage more and more Tennesseans to wear a mask.”

Lee said the state will continue to protect its most vulnerable citizens with regulations and mandates for place like senior care facilities but, by and large, he isn’t planning to step in and mandate masks or other safety measures.

“I don’t have any plans to do any further mandates but we certainly are messaging,” he said.

Asked about high school football and girls soccer, which are labeled as contact sports, Lee said he expects to see the sports played this fall and maybe sooner than previously announced. Earlier this month, the TSSAA announced – on the heels of the Lee’s extension of executive orders that would appear to ban contact sports – football and soccer would not start until the middle of September.

Lee walked that back, indicating his office has been working with the TSSAA and that the extension of the executive order didn’t necessarily mean all of the things in the executive order were extended, specifically mentioning football and soccer.

“We fully expect football and soccer to be a part of the landscape. We are working with the TSSAA and are working aggressively with them … We asked them to give us what they believe is the safe guidance to play, to practice, all things that allow us to operate in COVID. We wanted to make sure the recommendations fit within the guidelines … And they are working with our administration because we both would like to have football and soccer. We just want to make sure it’s very clear to all the schools out there, all the parents out there, what it’s going to look like.”

Tennessee sets record for new virus cases with 3,314

NASHVILLE (AP) — Tennessee reported a record number of new virus cases on Monday with 3,314, according to the Tennessee Department of Health.

That brings the total number of active cases in Tennessee to more than 65,000. Shelby County had the most cases statewide with 14,163. It was followed closely by Davidson County with 13,976 total cases. Rutherford County had the third highest number of cases with 3,755, followed by Hamilton with 3,535.

Two smaller Tennessee counties continue to lead the country in cases per capita, according to data compiled by The Associated Press. Trousdale County has the highest number of cases per capita in the U.S. with 1,510 active cases in a population of 9,573. Lake County is second with 696 cases in a population of 7,526. Both counties are homes to state prisons that saw large outbreaks of the new coronavirus in May and June, although the current numbers are nearly all from community transmission.

Monday’s new cases numbers top Tennessee’s previous one-day total of 2,451 recorded on Thursday. Monday saw eight new deaths from COVID-19 in Tennessee, bringing the total number of deaths from the pandemic to 749.