In a rare statewide address Sunday night, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee escalated his pleas for Tennesseans to follow COVID-19 guidelines to slow the spread of the virus. It’s now spreading faster and killing more people each day than the state has previously experienced.
Lee also issued a new executive order to restrict some — but not all — indoor public gatherings to 10 people and to limit spectators at indoor youth sporting events.
The governor is urging companies to allow employees to work from home, and he issued a particular plea for people to only spend time with members of their household for the next month.
“Tennesseans have two weapons that they must use in the next 30 days: Only gather with your household and wear a mask,” Lee said.
But those urgings are not mandates. And while Lee said everyone should wear a mask and commended counties that have issued mask mandates, he declined to issue one himself.
The executive order to limit gatherings is Lee’s first major public policy change in recent months. It does the following:
- Encourage remote work-from-home whenever possible.
- Restrict indoor public gatherings to fewer than 10 people — with many exceptions. The rule does allow multiple groups up to 10 to occupy a single place or venue as long as each group is distanced from others. And it does not apply to worship services, weddings or funerals, nor does it mention private household gatherings.
- Ban spectators from youth athletic events, although a range of administrators, coaches, parents, media and athletic scouts are allowed.
The rules apply starting Monday until Jan. 19.
Lee addressed widespread calls for a mask mandate by questioning whether such a move would encourage more people to wear them.
“Many think a statewide mandate would improve mask wearing, many think it would have the
opposite effect,” Lee said. But he added: “Masks work, and I want every Tennessean to wear one.”
Watch the speech below. It starts at the 4:50 mark.
Tennessee is now the state with the highest infection rate in the country, according to the Centers for Disease Control, and the active case count has grown by more than two-thirds in the last week alone.
Altogether, the speech Sunday night took on a pleading tone, building on previous urgings that residents take the pandemic seriously.
“Tennessee cannot sustain a similar surge after Christmas or New Year’s,” Lee said. “I’m asking you to make some hard decisions. I’m asking you to not engage in indoor gatherings for the holidays that include anyone outside your household.”
‘It will break our hospitals’
Meanwhile, in a press briefing Sunday afternoon, health officials released additional details about hospital capacity. Nearly 3,000 people are now hospitalized, continuing an upward trend that began in September. COVID-positive patients now fill a quarter of all hospital beds statewide, and a larger share in some regions.
Although vaccinations of health care workers have begun, staffing shortages are still dire.
“If we have another surge after Christmas and New Year’s like we did after Thanksgiving, it will completely break our hospitals,” Tennessee Health Commissioner Dr. Lisa Piercey said Sunday.