Tennessee Gov. Lee: Churches 'risking people's lives' with large services during COVID-19 crisis

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee delivers his State of the State Address in the House Chamber, Monday, Feb. 3, 2020, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

NASHVILLE - Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee says religious congregations that continue having large gatherings for services during the coronavirus pandemic are "risking people's lives."

"Churches that continue to meet and gather with elderly and putting groups of people in the same setting, they're quite frankly - they're risking people's lives," said the Republican, who often speaks about his religious faith, during a news conference Friday.

The governor's comments came before Tennessee health officials released new figures showing that cases of the potentially fatal COVID-19 virus jumped 48% from Thursday to Friday, rising from 154 to 228, as testing becomes more widespread. There are now cases in 26 of the state's 95 counties. Hamilton County cases on the state website did not increase from the total of five that local officials reported Thursday, but county officials on Friday confirmed eight cases.

Responding to a question about some churches still encouraging large numbers to attend services, Lee said, "there are ways to worship and there are ways to serve without congregating people.

"And I'm urging and challenging churches to do just that," Lee added. "Because I do believe that any time any business, any organization, any individual creates environments where people are congregating in big numbers, they're putting people's lives at risk."

The governor added that "we need to continue to get that message out there."

In Georgia, state and Northwest Georgia officials are urging church leaders to cancel all upcoming services for at least two weeks, the Times Free Press reported Friday.

As for whether he might step in to ban large gatherings under powers provided by his declared state of emergency, Lee said, "we're never going to be able to mandate people's behavior in their homes and in their yards and in their neighborhoods - in part because you can never enforce behavior that you mandate.

"But you know," Lee added, "nothing is ever off the table. We all know that. We don't know what's coming. We don't know the enormity of this crisis. There are decisions that we make today that we might not have made a week ago. And there may be decisions that we make in two weeks that we wouldn't make today."

Lee was accompanied by GOP legislative leaders, who recessed late Thursday night from their truncated session where they passed a $39.8 billion emergency budget, slashing the original spending plan by some $900 million and giving the governor money and wide latitude to spend it in addressing the pandemic.

On a related front, the governor wants day care centers to remain open, noting that closing them could put new pressures on working parents. To help ensure safety, Lee is exploring allowing the centers to use now-shuttered schools and their separate classrooms in an effort to keep groups of children to small numbers of 10 or fewer.

"It's important that day care centers determine ways to keep children in groups of 10," Lee said. "We're actually talking to officials about utilizing schools for day care centers in a way that we can limit the number of children in a classroom and not have children congregate but provide opportunities for parents to continue to go to work.

"It's a real crisis for people who suddenly find children at home and they both work or it's a single parent and they're off working," said Lee, who noted his daughter recently lost her job in a restaurant. "We're also working with the faith community."

During Thursday night proceedings, House minority Democrats lambasted Republicans for their refusal to expand the state's Medicaid program for low-income children and families, TennCare, to an estimated 300,000 low-income adults.

Lee, who has resisted expansion, said his administration is now talking with the Trump administration and "asking for some clarity" from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on whether Tennessee can seek a waiver "that would allow us to use Medicaid dollars to serve the uninsured population for treatment around COVID-19.

"It would be targeted treatment for the uninsured, tied specifically to this particular disease," Lee said. "And we're in the middle of that conversation."

The governor also noted that his second emergency executive order issued Thursday to utilize now-unused hospital beds could be used, if necessary, to re-open some hospital beds in rural communities to address COVID-19 patients.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.