A day after announcing his wife contracted COVID-19, Gov. Bill Lee declined to make a statewide mask mandate but asked Tennesseans not to hold indoor Christmas gatherings with anyone outside their household.

“Family time and celebrations are important, and I understand deeply how much Tennessee families need each other. But we must do all we can to blunt this surge,” Lee said during a statewide address on Facebook and YouTube. The governor postponed a press conference that was to be held after the announcement.

In addition, the governor signed an executive order limiting indoor public gatherings to no more than 10 people. In conjunction with the TSSAA, the state is cutting down on attendance at high school sporting events.

The executive order does not apply to places of worship, weddings or funeral activities, but those are encouraged to follow state guidelines.

Lee is also asking business owners to let employees work from home for the next 30 days. If that is not possible, employees are to wear masks while on the job, he said.

The Governor’s Office said late Saturday that Maria Lee tested positive for COVID-19 after showing mild symptoms of the virus. The governor has tested negative but is quarantining at the Governor’s Residence.

“We are in a global pandemic that’s been crippling our country for months. And now Tennessee is ground zero for a surge in sickness,” Lee said Sunday night.

About 10,000 Tennesseans are getting sick each day, three times more than at Halloween, while more than 100 people in the state are dying every day. The state has totaled 519,687 cases and 6,071 deaths from COVID-19.

“We are in a war,” he said, noting the arrival of a vaccine will allow the state to take the “offensive” against the virus but more will have to be done to avert the virus over the next few weeks.

He laid the blame late last week on “foolish decisions” by Tennesseans to hold large gatherings during the Thanksgiving holiday, which in only a few days caused the latest surge.

The governor is caught between a group of physicians calling for a statewide mask mandate and conservatives who don’t believe the government should be able to require them to wear masks to quell the virus. Nevertheless, he has allowed county mayors to enact mask mandates, and he reiterated Sunday night that 70% of Tennesseans are under a mask mandate while 80% of the public says they wear masks most of the time.

“Many think a statewide mandate would improve mask wearing, many think it would have the opposite effect,” he said.

Lee called the matter a “heavily politicized” issue, but while he continued to shy away from a statewide mandate, he said, “Masks work, and I want every Tennessean to wear one.”

Democratic state senators responded Sunday by saying Lee’s announcements “fail to meet the gravity” of Tennessee’s pandemic.

Sen. Raumesh Akbari, D-Memphis (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)
Sen. Raumesh Akbari, D-Memphis (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)

“Gov. Bill Lee is urging us to take action but taking none himself,” Senate Minority Leader Jeff Yarbro of Nashville said on Twitter. “Appreciate the governor raising the level of urgency – finally. But we need more than a change in tone. We need to change course.”

Sen. Raumesh Akbari of Memphis, chair of the caucus, said on Twitter, “This doesn’t even scratch the surface of what needs to be done to reduce numbers and save lives. Angry, disappointed and frustrated. Tennessee has a pharaoh when we need Moses.”

Akbari pointed out Tennessee has the highest rate for COVID-19 in the nation, with 9,000 people diagnosed Sunday, 40% higher than the national average.

In contrast, Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, an Oak Ridge Republican, said he backs Lee’s directives.

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)
Lt. Gov. Randy McNally (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)

“The actions he is taking are measured, thoughtful and absolutely necessary. I support him fully and I appreciate his leadership,” McNally said on Twitter.

Likewise, House Speaker Cameron Sexton stood behind the governor’s decisions.

“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,” Sexton said on Twitter.

Gov. Lee ordered “non-essential” businesses closed and followed that with a safer at home order when the pandemic between to spread across the state in March but lifted them as the virus began to slow down in late spring. The number of cases has escalated, though, with the reopening of schools in August and September and the Thanksgiving holiday which brought more people together indoors.