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NASHVILLE — Gov. Bill Lee, who has told fellow Tennesseans that "wearing a mask is the simplest action you can take to fight the spread of COVID-19," on Thursday found himself defending not wearing one earlier this month at a boat parade to support President Donald Trump on Tims Ford Reservoir near Winchester, Tennessee.

A post on social media shows smiling photos of the maskless governor and fellow Republicans U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais, U.S. Senate nominee Bill Hagerty and state Sen. Janice Bowling of Tullahoma on a boat at Tims Ford. The governor was sporting a Trump T-shirt.

Asked at his weekly news conference by a reporter if that goes against his often-cited wear-a-mask mantra, Lee said, "I think I do model" the health recommendations.

"I think Tennesseans need to know, and they hear me every day and they see me in masks every day," the governor said. "They watch what we say and what we do. I think it's really important that I think it's very serious."

Lee added, "I think that you do have to make your personal decisions, but you have an obligation, and I follow that obligation. There are circumstances where I don't wear a mask because I don't feel I'm at risk in that situation. But, yeah, I felt safe. And when I don't, I wear a mask."

The Herald Chronicle reported that the festive atmosphere of some 400 boats and 3,000 attendees was "reminiscent of old-time political rallies."

Asked about another photo also circulating on social media of the governor posed with his arm around a man in a restaurant, Lee said, "I felt safe in that environment. I don't know who it was or whether I know them. But I feel safe. When I don't feel safe, I wear a mask."

The governor usually wears a mask into public events such as at news conferences, but often removes it when speaking if he's able to maintain social distance from others.

While Lee has refused to mandate mask usage statewide, he has allowed Tennessee county mayors to impose mask requirements — although his administration is being sued by critics who contend he cannot delegate his authority during an emergency to other governments.

Lee's administration is spending $4.32 million on a state "Face It" multimedia ad campaign in which the governor is betting on persuasion over a statewide mask mandate to convince Tennesseans to proactively curb the spread of the coronavirus.

The campaign, which includes broadcast television and cable as well as radio and digital ads, began July 23. It continues through the end of the year.

Lee also said during Thursday's news conference that he is rejecting Metro Nashville Mayor John Cooper's request for an emergency $82 million in funding to aid the city's response to the coronavirus pandemic.

The governor said Cooper needs to do more to ease the city's strict COVID-19 restrictions, which have curbed or shuttered much of Nashville's tourist destinations downtown and drawn protests from some bar owners.

"We will partner with and work with the mayor but I'm not going fund the current request as requested," Lee said, also adding "we need Nashville to open up. We need conventions to be here. We need to operate safely, but we need our economy moving forward. There's a great cost to Tennessee when we restrict businesses and close down our economy."

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

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