NASHVILLE — A Democratic U.S. House panel chairman's demand that Gov. Bill Lee and three other Republican governors begin following private guidance from the White House Coronavirus Task Force to combat the COVID-19 pandemic and also provide him the recommendations has two Tennessee congressmen taking opposing sides.
U.S. Rep. Mark Green, a Tennessee Republican and physician, fired off a letter this week objecting to the directive from U.S. Rep. James Clyburn, D-South Carolina, chairman of the recently created Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, who had demanded the information on Wednesday.
In Clyburn's Wednesday letter to Lee — who met in Nashville on Monday with White House Coronavirus Task Force head Dr. Deborah Birx — the chairman noted the administration privately warned "Tennessee is in the red zone for cases ... and the red zone for test positivity."
"This unpublished report recommends far stronger public health measures than the White House has called for in public or than the state currently requires — including mandating face masks, closing bars and gyms and strictly limiting gatherings," Clyburn's letter said.
The chairman added that "in light of the alarming surge of coronavirus cases and deaths in Tennessee, I am troubled that the Trump Administration would seek to keep public health recommendations secret rather than publicly communicating the importance of these measures to the American people and ensuring they are followed."
Green called on Clyburn to rescind what he called "partisan attacks on coronavirus response efforts in Tennessee" as well as Georgia, Oklahoma and Florida.
Writing that he has "severe concern over your letters to four states led by Republican governors, including my home state Gov. Bill Lee of Tennessee," Green stated the White House Coronavirus Task Force report has 21 states listed "in the 'red zone.' Yet, for some reason, only four of these states, all with Republican governors, were on the receiving end of your letter."
"Tennessee's leaders, from the Governor to county health departments and school boards, have worked tirelessly to respond to this pandemic since Day One," Green wrote. "Whether or not one agrees with each decision made, the Constitution does not grant you or this Committee any right to selectively harass certain states led by governors of the opposite political party."
Green charged "your letters today reek of partisanship. It is wrong to capitalize on a pandemic by playing political games. I urge you to rescind your requests to these states so that they can focus on what is most important: protecting our people."
A Democratic congressional staffer told the Times Free Press the letters went to the four GOP-led states "because they are 'Red Zone' states with governors that continually make decisions against public health guidelines even after the [White House] began using this reporting and guidelines."
No such letter was sent to Texas Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, the staffer pointed out, because he instituted a statewide mask mandate this month. Lee and the three other governors haven't. Lee has delegated authority to the state's 95 counties to require residents wear masks in public. Some, including Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger, have. Others, especially in rural areas in Tennessee, have not.
During her public appearance with Lee, Birx urged county mayors to enact mask requirements and also called for closure of bars. Lee said he isn't planning on doing that, leaving it again up to local governments. The governor's refusal to take such actions later drew criticism from a Nashville physician who described his own harrowing ordeal after getting COVID-19.
While Green is critical of Clyburn's requests, U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, a Nashville Democrat, lauded the chairman's letter and also labeled Tennessee's handling of the COVID-19 pandemic "disastrous."
"The state did not act soon enough to close things down, then it moved too fast to open things up," Cooper said in a statement. "Tennessee is a 'red zone.' The Wall Street Journal [Tuesday] put us at the 7th worst state in the country in rapid rate of case growth."
Cooper said that Lee, a Republican, "still refuses a mask mandate, even when the Trump administration advises that he order one. I'm glad the Committee is asking these questions. We need to do what we know works so we can get back to work, school, and our community life."
Contact Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550. Follow on Twitter @AndySher1.