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NASHVILLE — While still recovering from his personal battle with COVID-19, a Nashville physician on Tuesday challenged Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee to put his convictions behind his 2018 campaign's "man of faith" slogan by "having the courage" to lead and mandate statewide mask use.

"Gov. Lee, I know you say you are a man of faith, and I know you believe you are doing the right thing," said Dr. Stephen Heyman, a critical care physician and pulmonologist at Nashville's Ascension St. Thomas Medical Center during a conference call with reporters. "But I can't understand why you think you can't use your power as the governor of the state to issue a mask mandate."

Heyman added, "You have chaos out in Tennessee right now. There are cases climbing. We have an active outbreak, and you want to keep businesses open and schools open. But the only way to do that is to control the epidemic, and you have to lead."

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's COVID Data Tracker on Tuesday showed Tennessee added 16,735 cases during the previous seven-day period. The state has had 943 confirmed deaths from the pandemic.

According to the online news site Axios, 31 states — including Tennessee neighbors Alabama, North Carolina and Arkansas — have statewide mask requirements.

Heyman's plea came a day after Lee, a Republican, reiterated his stance that he will not issue a statewide mask requirement as he appeared with Dr. Deborah Birx, a White House coronavirus adviser.

Birx said mask mandates as well as bar closures and social distancing are needed, warning Tennessee is at an "inflection point." But in an apparent nod to Lee, Birx steered clear of calling for a statewide mask-wearing mandate. Instead, she urged mayors to do so.

The governor has given the state's 95 county mayors authority over mask and business closure decisions while he funds a multimillion-dollar ad campaign to urge Tennesseans to wear masks voluntarily. Among local officials who have ordered mask wearing in public is Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger.

Speaking immediately after Birx, Lee said in response to reporters' questions, "I've been to counties that have a mandate where people are not wearing masks as well. People wear masks because they believe there is a reason to do so, and I believe that they will increasingly understand that as their local officials advocate for that.

"I appreciate their recommendations, and we take them seriously," Lee said of the White House coronavirus task force. Yet he reiterated he doesn't intend to issue such mandates himself.

On Tuesday, Heyman participated in a video conference call with reporters along with the Rev. Judy Cummings, a pastor at New Covenant Christian Church in Nashville and a retired nurse, as well as Kristen Morjal, an elementary school teacher, and the Rev. Jared Ruari, a Shelbyville pastor.

"I think this is greater than you," Heyman said in his public plea to Lee. "I think if we all pull together in the power of prayer and love we can do what is necessary. You need to set an example. You're not going to be criticized for doing the right thing for your state."

Morjal, the teacher, said she and colleagues are "greatly concerned" about having schools physically opening up later this month in some areas while the pandemic continues. She also said that she believes teaching is a calling.

"I feel now we're being asked to put our own lives and those of our students in jeopardy," Morjal said.

Hamilton County Schools are planning a phased reopening, from a Phase 1 with online-only education to Phase 4 with full-service in-person education, with two hybrid phases in between. The reopening posture on the first day of school, Aug. 12, will depend on active pandemic cases at the time, along with other health data.

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

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