Gov. Lee tells mayors to pray, trust Tennesseans to do right thing to prevent spread of coronavirus

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, right, answers questions concerning the state's response to the coronavirus Monday, March 16, 2020, in Nashville, Tenn. Lee has asked all schools in Tennessee to close by the end of the week due to coronavirus spreading across the state. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

The governor of Tennessee is encouraging local leaders to bet on human nature and prayer, rather than enforceable mandates, to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus.

On a Wednesday morning conference call with scores of county and municipal mayors from across the state, Lee shot through a list of COVID-19 prevention, testing and treatment topics in less than half an hour, saying that more specific guidance will be shared with the localities later, and emphasizing the significant financial steps his administration is taking to cushion the economic impact of the outbreak.

In a recording of the call obtained by the Times Free Press, Lee is heard offering his approach to local leaders: mandates aren't necessary, make recommendations and Tennesseans will obey.

"On closures, utilize [the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] guidance, we're not issuing orders, we're issuing guidance and strong suggestions," Lee says. "We don't have to mandate people not do certain behavior because Tennesseans follow suggestions. They follow guidance. So when we do that we're going to see that Tennesseans come together."

At multiple points in the phone call, Lee presents the idea that citizens of Tennessee will practice responsible social distancing to prevent the spread of the virus which, as of Thursday, has infected at least 154 people across the state.

While he emphasizes the importance of following CDC health guidance regarding gatherings, hygiene and social distancing, Lee ends the call encouraging recommendations and prayer to curtail the spread of this novel coronavirus.

"Lastly I want to encourage you to pray. I want you to pray for your citizens that are affected by economic downturns, by the sickness sweeping through the state," Lee says. "I want you to know that you're being prayed for as leaders in your community that you will have wisdom and discernment."

As other areas across the state grapple with closures, there is evidence that suggests Lee's trusting approach won't work.

Last weekend Nashville, which has the most cases of the virus of any area in the state, recommended downtown bars close to prevent further spread, causing major pushback from many of its most prominent downtown bars. Several bar owners have refused the guidance and remain open. Mayor John Cooper's recommendation came after Nashville garnered national attention - and plenty of criticism - last weekend because of a viral video that showed a Nashville club wall-to-wall packed with people, despite recommendations from public health officials that Americans practice social distancing.

Now, as Hamilton County and Chattanooga face five confirmed cases of the virus, leadership of the city and county are divided on the governor's stance.

On the one hand, County Mayor Jim Coppinger released a "recommendation" on Wednesday asking for bars and restaurants to shift to carry-out, drive-through and delivery only, preventing dine-in service. But he offered no enforcement on the suggestion, a move that echoes Lee's guidance.

"I was on the call and I heard the governor say that he wasn't going to mandate that because he has confidence, like a lot of us do. That's not why I made this decision, but I do agree," Coppinger told the paper Thursday afternoon, citing the lack of local bars celebrating St. Patrick's Day, a massive drinking holiday, on Tuesday. "People were doing the responsible thing for the most part. The overwhelming majority of the [bars] were closed. That's why these are recommendations, just like avoiding gatherings of 10 or more or washing your hands or whatever else is just a recommendation."

Meanwhile, Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke on Thursday signed an executive order mandating bars and restaurants temporarily end dine-in services while closing gyms. That order is enforceable by police, the fire marshal and city building officials.

Berke accredits his more rigid approach to the severity of the threat.

"The goal is not to stop these businesses from operating, it's to make sure they're operating in the safest possible way," he said on a call with reporters Thursday. "My goal is to return to a more normal process as soon as possible with as few people getting sick as we can."

Berke said he recognizes the financial impact his order could have, but will seek to shift some local money toward impacted businesses.

Though Berke declined to comment directly on the governor's approach, he said earlier while delivering his executive order that "we are behind the curve in responding [to the virus] and that needs to change immediately."

While a spokesman for Lee had not provided a response to questions about the call by the time of publication, Lee's approach seems to be coming from even higher up.

"We get guidance from the White House that changes daily," Lee says in the recording. "I've been on multiple calls with the vice president and the president himself, and every time we get on a phone call they issue new guidance or new recommendations."

It's unclear what other guidance the state has offered localities during this crisis, as Lee himself recognized a communication problem while on the call.

"There has been a bottleneck of information between the state and county mayors and city mayors, but we're hoping now that the bottleneck has been freed up," Lee says, providing no other details.

Contact Sarah Grace Taylor at or 423-757-6416. Follow her on Twitter @_sarahgtaylor.