Rural GOP leaders beg Gov. Lee to end all economic restrictions, completely reopen Tennessee

Family eats outside at restuarant in
A mother and her children wait for their food at Puckett's Grocery & Restaurant on April 27 in Franklin. Tennessee is one of the first states to reopen restaurants after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Restaurants are permitted to open at 50 percent capacity but required to maintain social distancing. (Photo by Jason Kempin/Getty Images)

Eight rural county Republican Party organizations begged Gov. Bill Lee in an open letter this week to reopen the state’s economy and bring the legislature back into session immediately.

The letter was from GOP groups in Maury, Lawrence, Giles, Marshall, Lincoln, Coffee, Perry and Wayne counties.

Lee began a limited reopening of the economy on May 1. Under a plan called the Tennessee Pledge, some businesses in 89 of the state’s 95 counties can begin opening back up. Restaurants and retail shops can serve customers at 50 percent capacity, while also adhering to social distancing and hygiene guidelines implemented by the federal Centers for Disease Control.

The eight county GOP groups argued that citizens don’t need the state government to determine whether it is safe to eat in a restaurant. The letter was widely shared on social media on Monday and Tuesday.

The letter called on Lee to “change course with your response to the COVID-19 crisis, repealing all restrictions on businesses and gatherings of any kind…

Even for those who have not lost a business or employment, seeing one’s community shuttered is unreal, even post-apocalyptic. This is no exaggeration.”

A screenshot of the letter sent to Governor Bill Lee by eight chairs of rural Republican county parties.
A screenshot of the letter sent to Governor Bill Lee by eight chairs of rural Republican county parties.
A screenshot of the letter sent to Governor Bill Lee by eight chairs of rural Republican county parties. (Second page.)
A screenshot of the letter sent to Governor Bill Lee by eight chairs of rural Republican county parties. (Second page.)

The GOP leaders argued that restrictions on public gatherings of 10 or more people “not only hurts us economically, but as human beings. We are social creatures and always have been.

“But more than that, we are the People. And the People are able to govern themselves. We do not need at this point any more hand-holding from the government.

“Puckett’s in Columbia, for example, can decide for itself how to manage its restaurant, good or bad. Patrons can decide whether to eat there. But somewhere along the way we decided that only government knows best. We’re now reminded that’s not true.”

Like all governors, Lee has been forced to balance the public health crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic against the economic devastation across the state in determining how to reopen.

As of Tuesday, 13,624 people tested positive for the virus in Tennessee and 226 people had died.

  Even for those who have not lost a business or employment, seeing one’s community shuttered is unreal, even post-apocalyptic. This is no exaggeration.   – County GOP leaders

The pandemic led to approximately 413,000 unemployment claims between March 1 and April 19, with unemployment eclipsing 15 percent statewide. Net sales lost by Tennessee retailers is over $870 million.

While protestors have gathered at the capital to advocate for loosening the statewide lockdown orders, Lee has also taken criticism from Democrats who have argued the limited reopening is premature. Guidelines from the White House and the Centers for Disease Control for opening up state economies call for a decline in the total number of cases or the percentage of positive tests for 14 days — benchmarks that Tennessee has not achieved.

“For the good of our state, social distancing must continue, but our economic shutdown cannot,” Lee said last week, arguing that the time was right to allow the vast majority of counties to reopen.

The current plan is for the General Assembly to return to session on June 1, taking up a limited number of bills that were left in limbo when the pandemic hit in March. But the eight GOP groups said the session should begin immediately.

“Even if you disagree with our position about ending all restrictions immediately, the People have a right to have their voices heard in Nashville during this critical time,” the GOP groups said in their letter. “Therefore, we’re asking that you bring the Legislature back from recess immediately. In this critical time, I’m sure you agree that the People, even if their government disagrees, have the right to be heard.”

The letter was co-signed by Maury County Republican Party Chairman S. Jason Whatley, Lawrence County Republican Party Chairwoman Susan Curlee, Giles County Republican Party Chairman Chris Morris, Marshall County Republican Party Vice Chairwoman Julie Quan, Lincoln County Republican Party Chairwoman Mary Tackett, Coffee County Republican Party Chairman Richard Brooks, Perry County Republican Party Chairman Daniel Walcott and Wayne County Republican Party Chairman Johnny Heard.