NASHVILLE —Despite Tennessee's rising number of new COVID-19 cases and deaths, including hot spots in places such as Hamilton County, Gov. Bill Lee is showing little inclination to dial things back and reimpose any of the pandemic-era restrictions that he lifted starting May 1 to restart the state's economy.
At a news conference this week at which he highlighted figures showing an uptick in tax collections as signs of a resurging economy, Lee told reporters that he by no means considers the coronavirus threat over.
"There is a genuine understanding that COVID-19 is a serious public health crisis for our state, and we take it seriously every single day," the Republican governor said in response to a question, later adding "we are encouraged that we have one of the lowest death rates per capita in the country, but every single death is a very serious issue for me."
The governor's comments came after The New York Times on Monday ranked Chattanooga as No. 2 on its national ranking of places with the highest average growth rate for COVID-19 deaths.
State Health Commissioner Dr. Lisa Piercey, who also appeared at Lee's news conference, announced that 50% of reported cases in Tennessee are now coming from an "unknown source half of all infections that people don't know where they got infected. Now that's not surprising, because as people are moving about in the community they come into contact with people that are sick that they're unaware of."
Regarding the situation in Hamilton County and Chattanooga, the governor said, "Chattanooga had a spike in cases and we've had conversations with the mayors' offices, both the county and the city. We've been to Chattanooga. We've developed a strategy. I've personally talked with the county mayor the day before yesterday [Monday] to talk about our efforts and our work with that county."
The governor added, "I take it very seriously with the challenges we're facing with this pandemic, and we'll continue to do so going forward."
Hamilton County's reported COVID-19 deaths were 29 as of Wednesday.
"We're working with the health department there to expand testing and to provide innovative and alternative ways to get folks to test," Lee said. "We're doing public service announcements in Spanish and on Hispanic radio stations particularly because of the Hispanic outbreak that we've had there. There are a lot of efforts we're making."
Piercey referenced the "hot spot" measures the state is "implementing in places and Chattanooga's one of those places."
In a series of executive orders beginning March 20, Lee sought to throw a wet blanket on the coronavirus' spread with school closures followed by a "safer at home" directive and, on April 1, an order for "nonessential" businesses to close.
The governor, who faced opposition from a group of elected Republican district attorneys, among others, later began relaxing the order with the "safer at home" order ending April 30 and others involving tourist attractions such as the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga and large gatherings at sports events later lifted.
As part of his effort, Lee created what he dubbed the "Tennessee Pledge" in which businesses voluntarily agree to maintain safe practices such as cleanliness, social distancing practices and other measures.
Not all businesses are following that. Metro Nashville, which still operates under its own health guidelines, has cracked down on a number of restaurants, bars and nightclubs.
Lee's executive orders applied only to the 89 counties in which the state runs the county health department. It didn't apply to six counties operating their own health departments, including Hamilton County.
Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger and local health officials went along with all of Lee's decisions and were in control, as Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke learned when he sought to impose his own COVID-19 rules.
Asked Tuesday what he considered the most critical measure in terms of gauging where the state stands on COVID-19, Lee said, "The most important data is death rate. The second most important data is the hospitalization numbers and our health care capacity. To me, those are the most important data. Certainly case count matters, the numbers of contact tracers, what age folks are getting this, duration. There's a lot of data and none of it is not important. But some of them are the most important in my view."
Asked if there was a particular data point that would lead him to reimpose stricter guidelines, Lee noted, "I've always said nothing's off the table, but I actually think there are a lot of levers that would happen with regard to hospitalization, for example, long before you started other measures."
Tennessee in conjunction with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has a special COVID-19 hospital in Memphis to handle surges in hospitalizations and prevent hospitals from becoming overwhelmed. In Nashville, two floors of the city's hospital have been converted to a special COVID-19 section.
Similar plans for a surge facility in Chattanooga have been frozen for months.
"We're in a really different place in this pandemic than we were four months ago," Lee said. "People know and have personal responsibility for whether or not they go to a bar or whether or not they go to an event. Or whether or not they wear a mask. Or whether or not they wash their hands. There's personal responsibility and now we all know as a society what causes this, how it's spread and how we can protect ourselves from it.
"So," he added, "that changes the responsibilities that government has to provide safeguards."
Knoxville television station WATE reported Thursday that up to 4,000 people will be allowed to attend a concert this weekend at Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary, a former state prison in Petros, Tennessee, which closed in 2009 and reopened as a tourist attraction in 2018.
That's a 60% decline in maximum capacity from the first concert "Live at Brushy" at the one-time prison whose former inmates included James Earl Ray, convicted in the 1968 killing of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis.
Senate Minority Caucus Chairman Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, took issue with aspects of Lee's approach.
"It seems like we have a lot of people in denial about the reality that this pandemic is still with us and very much a threat," Yarbro said during a teleconference call with other legislative Democratic leaders on Wednesday. He said Lee is spending too much time "following the lead of the White House.
"Choosing between the economy and health care, I think that's a false choice," Yarbro said as he went on to point to successes in other states that are experiencing less sickness and less death proprtionately than Tennessee. "We need to be focused like a laser on this health issue."
Contact Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-255-0550. Follow on Twitter @AndySher1.