Coronavirus chairman in Congress demands Tennessee, Georgia 'red zone' report

U.S. Rep. James Clyburn speaks at the University of South Carolina, Monday, Nov. 23, 2015, in Columbia, S.C. (AP Photo/Sean Rayford)

NASHVILLE - The Democratic chairman of a U.S. House coronavirus panel on Wednesday sent letters to Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp and two fellow Republican governors seeking documents on recommendations the Trump administration privately made on the states' respective COVID-19 surges and whether the states followed them.

U.S. Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina, chairman of the recently formed House Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, noted in his letter to Lee - who met here Monday with White House Coronavirus Task Force head Dr. Deborah Birx - that the administration privately warned "Tennessee is in the red zone for cases ... and the red zone for test positivity."

"This unpublished report recommends far stronger public health measures than the White House has called for in public or than the state currently requires - including mandating face masks, closing bars and gyms and strictly limiting gatherings," Clyburn's letter reads.

The chairman goes on to add that "in light of the alarming surge of coronavirus cases and deaths in Tennessee, I am troubled that the Trump Administration would seek to keep public health recommendations secret rather than publicly communicating the importance of these measures to the American people and ensuring they are followed."

Lee spokesman Gillum Ferguson said, "We've received the letter and will review."

The governor has declined to implement a statewide mask order. He has issued an executive order delegating the legal authority, responsibility and decision-making for mask mandates, bar closures and restaurant seating to Tennessee's 95 county mayors. Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger has issued a mask-in-public mandate. Many mayors in rural areas have not.

In his letter to Kemp, Clyburn used similar language as his letter to Lee. A similar letter went to Vice President Mike Pence.

The chairman's letter letter arrived in Tennessee on Wednesday as the state crossed the 1,000-death threshold from the virus, with 1,020 deaths attributed to COVID-19. That's an additional 416 deaths since June 30, a 65.39% jump.

Clyburn cited a report in The New York Times which he said "indicates that the White House Task Force has privately called for states to take stronger steps to combat the pandemic, such as mandating face masks and social distancing. At the same time, the Administration has made numerous public statements that contradict those recommendations and downplay the severity of the crisis."

The letter comes after Birx and her staff spent some four hours in Tennessee on Monday, meeting with Lee and other administration officials. Birx did not call for the state to implement a statewide mask mandate but urged county mayors to do so.

Lee, who spoke shortly after Birx during a new conference at the Tennessee National Guard's headquarters, showed no inclination to issue a mask order or to shut down bars which in Nashville have been reported as a major source of contagion.

"Beyond the regions that currently have restrictions, that's not a plan for us now," Lee said.

Lee recently launched what he says is a multimillion-dollar ad campaign to persuade Tennesseans to wear masks.

"My belief is that wearing masks is a safe way to keep our economy open, to keep our schools open and the best way to implement that in a sustainable way is to use the targeted approach that we have," he said. "That's my belief, and that's my approach, and that's our effort and we see it working."

During a Tuesday appearance on ABC's Good Morning America, Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the federal government's National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, continued to advocate for wearing masks, social distancing at least six feet, avoiding crowds, closing bars "in areas where there's viral activity" and practicing hand hygiene.

Fauci said after a "major surge" of COVID-19 cases in Florida, Texas, Arizona and California, those states "appear, I hope, ... like they may be cresting and coming back down."

"What I'm concerned about is what Dr. Birx has mentioned just a little bit ago, that some of the other states, the Ohios, the Indianas, the Tennessees, the Kentuckys that are starting to have the very early indication that the percent of cases regarding the number of cases you have, that the percent is starting to go up," Fauci said.

He went on to warn "that's a sure fire sign that you got to be really careful. And if you are trying to open up, please do it in a way that's in accordance with the guidelines, the guidelines that we carefully put together some time ago. If you do that carefully - and you do the four or five fundamentals that I mentioned ... I think we can prevent the surges that we've seen in the Southern states. And of course we just can't afford again another surge."

Contact Andy Sher at or 615-255-0550. Follow on Twitter @AndySher1.