Gov. Bill Lee. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Gov. Bill Lee announced Friday he will not extend Tennessee’s state of emergency when it expires at midnight, lifting measures put in place 20 months ago to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.
The move comes even though the Tennessee Department of Health reported 1,749 new cases in the last day, 694 total hospitalizations and seven more deaths, for a total of 16,796 since the pandemic started in March 2020.
More than 22,600 tests were also administered over the last day, and the state’s positivity rate is 6.46%.
“I am not renewing the COVID-19 state of emergency that expires tonight. For almost 20 months, this tool has provided deregulation and operational flexibility for hospitals and industries most affected by COVID’s challenges. Should our state face any future surges, we will consider temporarily reinstating this tool, but in the meantime, we are evaluating opportunities for permanent deregulation,” Lee said in a statement.
Portions of the governor’s state of emergency were designed to make transportation of goods easier and for hospitals to be able to operate outside normal regulations to deal with the burden of COVID-19 patients.
The governor also put rules into place encouraging “non-essential” businesses to close early in the pandemic and to limit businesses such as barber shops and salons, which have close personal interaction. Those were lifted after a matter of months.
House Republican leadership immediately lauded the governor’s move as Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, sent out this tweet: “Appreciate @GovBillLee’s steady leadership & agree it’s time to end the state of emergency. #TN was one of the first to successfully reopen, & we remain a national economic leader. Look forward to working w/ the Gov., @ltgovmcnally, & General Assembly, so #TN continues to lead.”
Sexton was the driving force behind a late October special session of the General Assembly in which it passed sweeping COVID-19 legislation designed to stop public school systems from mandating masks and to keep companies from forcing employees to be vaccinated. Lee declined to call that special session on the heels of a special session in which the Legislature approved a $900 million incentive package for Ford Motor Co. to invest $5.6 billion for an electric truck and battery plant at the Memphis Regional Megasite in Haywood County.
Ford and other companies disliked the Legislature’s mask and vaccine restrictions, forcing Republican leaders to come up with measures the business community could handle, such as exemptions for companies and other entities that receive federal contracts or grants.
An Associated Press report Friday morning showed the Legislature passed the COVID-19 bill and Gov. Lee signed it even though one of his legal advisers told them it would violate the Americans with Disabilities Act.
U.S. District Court Judge Waverly Crenshaw placed an injunction on the mask portion of the law after parents of disabled children filed a lawsuit against the governor claiming it violates their children’s rights.
Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson called the judge’s decision “overreach” and contended the law takes disabled children into consideration. The law, however, allows school districts to enact mask mandates only in severe cases and one school at a time for just 14 days.
(Lee's) worried about his political future, he refuses to do the right thing and protect Tennesseans' lives. His leadership and his administration is unacceptable when it comes to dealing with this pandemic and the decisions they make. – Rep. Vincent Dixie, D-Nashville, House Democratic Caucus Leader
(Lee's) worried about his political future, he refuses to do the right thing and protect Tennesseans' lives. His leadership and his administration is unacceptable when it comes to dealing with this pandemic and the decisions they make.
– Rep. Vincent Dixie, D-Nashville, House Democratic Caucus Leader
Lt. Gov. Randy McNally said Friday, in response to the questions from Tennessee Lookout, “COVID is not over by any means. But as the pandemic recedes and the virus becomes endemic, we must transition in how we approach it. Vaccination should still be highly encouraged and all of us should continue to act responsibly. But I agree with Gov. Lee that the emergency phase is now over. We must begin to formulate a new long-term approach to managing this virus from a public policy standpoint. Ending the state of emergency and the steps the Legislature took during the special session are part of this effort.”
In contrast, House Democratic Caucus Chairman Vincent Dixie called the governor’s decision “juvenile and naive,” considering the infection rate in Tennessee.
“It’s ridiculous that this public health crisis has become so political,” Dixie said Friday. “He’s so worried about his political future, he refuses to do the right thing and protect Tennesseans’ lives. His leadership and his administration is unacceptable when it comes to dealing with this pandemic and the decisions that they make.”
The Nashville Democrat also bashed the governor’s decision to sign the legislation in spite of a warning from his legal adviser that it would violate the ADA. He called it another example of “how (Lee) doesn’t care about protecting the lives of Tennesseans.”
Dixie said he believes the state could have “truly” emerged from the pandemic if the state had followed the recommendations of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control for vaccines and masks.
Tennessee has had one of the lowest vaccination rates in the nation, and is at 49% for full vaccination.
A spokeswoman for the governor did not respond immediately to questions Friday about whether Lee believes the pandemic is over or what types of permanent deregulation he plans to make.
Earlier this week, the governor made a public service announcement inviting police officers across the nation who refuse to be vaccinated to come work for the Tennessee Highway Patrol.
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