Tennessee governor downplays current COVID-19 surge, sees no need for mask mandates

Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee talks with guests before the ribbon cutting ceremony at the Lodge at Fall Creek Falls in Spencer, Tenn. on Tuesday, January 4, 2022.

NASHVILLE - As Tennessee's COVID-19 case numbers surge to new heights because of the highly contagious omicron variant, Gov. Bill Lee said Tuesday he sees no current need to declare a health emergency to trigger mask mandates because, he argued, infections are not translating to a wave of hospitalizations.

"We've got to follow this, we've got to make sure we know that we know what is happening out there on the ground," the governor told reporters Tuesday following a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the state's new $40.5 million Lodge Fall Creek Falls near Spencer, Tennessee.

Lee said there is "very encouraging news in the current surge, hospitalizations do not equate in the same way that they did to numbers of cases. That's a good thing.

(READ MORE: Tennessee Gov. Lee opens new $40.3 million Lodge Fall Creek Falls)

"We're just going to watch this going forward and continue to encourage people to protect themselves, get their vaccines, get their boosters," the governor continued. "We're in a really different spot in the pandemic than we've been in for the past couple of years. We're watching it, we're tracking it. We're encouraged about some parts of it, but we're continuing to move forward."

A bill passed in October by state Republican legislators makes it more difficult for Lee, who signed the measure into law, and local officials to declare a COVID-19 state of emergency that allows officials to impose mask requirements.

In order to mandate face masks going forward, the new Tennessee law requires the governor to declare a state of emergency and counties to report at least 1,000 new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents over 14 days. As of Monday, Hamilton County averaged 1,230 cases per 100,000 people in the previous two weeks.

A federal judge has blocked the state law from going into effect statewide until a pending lawsuit filed by attorneys on behalf of a group of students with disabilities is decided. Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger in late December told the Times Free Press he has little interest in pressing mask requirements at this juncture, even if the threshold is met.

As of Sunday, coronavirus infections in Tennessee had resulted in at least 20,902 deaths and 42,769 hospitalizations since it first appeared, according to the state Department of Health's website.

Rep. Yusuf Hakeem, D-Chattanooga, said in a telephone interview Tuesday he isn't pleased by what's happening.

"I think he's putting himself between a rock and a hard place, meaning the truth, the facts that people are dying from this disease," Hakeem said of Lee. "There are more people acquiring the disease, and I see no effort on his part to curb the amount of infection that's going on.

"It would be one thing if what he says dealt only with him, but the inaction on his part harms an entire state, economically and health-wise," Hakeem said. "And I think, to me, it's a lack of will, a lack of leadership to allow something of this nature to just to explode in the way that it has and to look at it, it sounds like he's saying it's not a big deal. But it is a big deal."

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