Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee speaks at Hamilton County Republican dinner

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee answers questions during a news conference Wednesday, July 1, 2020, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

Hamilton County Republicans hosted Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee on Friday at an event at the Westin Hotel in Chattanooga that was closed to the media.

The occasion was the GOP group's annual Lincoln Day Dinner - the group's largest annual fundraiser, according to Arch Trimble, president of the Hamilton County Republicans.

Trimble told the Times Free Press on Friday afternoon that no press could attend the event because it was "family only" and the one time of year the group is "allowed to be ourselves."

Attempts to contact multiple spokespeople for the governor on Friday were unsuccessful.

The governor, who extended a statewide emergency declaration amid the COVID-19 pandemic the same day, was named as the keynote speaker at the event, along with Lt. Gov. Randy McNally and state House Speaker Cameron Sexton.

Lee, who has not mandated masks or vaccines at any point during the pandemic, drew criticism from about 20 conservative protesters who say he "muzzles" people, referring to several months during the pandemic when Lee gave certain localities the ability to issue mask mandates.

Multiple members of the protest group said they were not allowed to talk to a reporter, deferring to their leader, Glenda Pappu.

Pappu, 66, is the founder of Tennessee Neighbors for Liberty, a conservative group that organized the protest.

"We are concerned about the policies, or failed policies, of our governor," Pappu told the Times Free Press.

Pappu cited several local employers who have begun requiring masks again amid a recent increase in COVID-19 cases. She said they are violating the individual rights of employees.

"I would like for him to undeclare a state of emergency," she said. "We do not have a state of emergency. People are not dying in the streets. As long as you have treatment for a disease, you do not have any emergency."

According to the Hamilton County Health Department, 515 people have died of COVID-19 here, including two the week that ended July 24 and two the week that ended July 31.

Last year, the Lincoln Day Dinner was held amid the county's mask mandate, which at the time required face coverings in most indoor situations, with exceptions for when people are eating. The event with around 500 attendees was later traced to multiple confirmed cases of COVID-19.

This year, there is no mask mandate in place.

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