NASHVILLE — Gov. Bill Lee is on the hunt for 5 million cloth masks to distribute free to Tennesseans as his administration prepares to restart the state's economy next week amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
So where to go to find that many masks?
An administration official told the Chattanooga Times Free Press on Thursday that the state is working with a North Carolina-based firm that has a manufacturing and distribution facility in Cleveland, Tennessee, to acquire five million cloth masks to distribute for free.
"As you will imagine, wearing a mask will be encouraged, and we want to make sure all Tennesseans will have access to ones that can be washable and wearable and safe to use," former state Finance Commissioner Stuart McWhorter told lawmakers this week during a conference call.
McWhorter, who now heads Gov. Bill Lee's recently created COVID-19 Unified Command group, also said officials are working with Amazon or others on a distribution strategy.
On Thursday, Dean Flener, a spokesman for the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency as well as for the Unified Command, elaborated some on the state's plans, telling the Times Free Press the state is working with Mount Airy, N.C.-based Renfro Corp., a global designer and distributor of legwear products with a plant in Cleveland.
The governor's Economic Recovery Group and Unified Command "are working on details to complete the purchase and receive delivery of the cloth face masks," Flener said by email. "More details will be released next week on this important project dedicated to Tennessee's COVID-19 recovery and re-opening."
Details on the state's costs in the venture weren't immediately available.
While McWhorter pegged the number of masks Tennessee is seeking at five million, the state's population last year was estimated at nearly 6.83 million people. Officials had no immediate answers to reconcile the two numbers.
A Republican, Lee announced Monday he plans to let his stay-at-home order expire April 30, a move affecting 89 of Tennessee's 95 counties. That's based on counties where the health department is operated by the state Department of Health.
Lee's plan does not directly affect the remaining six counties, including Hamilton County, which have their own health departments.
Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger plans to go along with Lee and begin a return to normalcy on May 1. Coppinger also has asked the county's 10 municipalities to do the same. Seven have agreed.
Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke, who heads Hamilton's largest city, said hours after Lee announced his plans Monday that he won't set an "arbitrary" reopening date and will rely instead on results as more robust testing for the coronavirus is done locally and then proceed based on that information.
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