This story was updated Tuesday, April 27, 2021, at 8:34 p.m. with more information.
NASHVILLE — Declaring that the COVID-19 pandemic is no longer a health crisis but a "managed public health issue," Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee on Tuesday announced the end of any statewide public health restrictions as well as the revocation of authority for local leaders to impose mask mandates in 89 counties whose health departments he controls.
"After more than a year of public-led health interventions, we're in a different season," the governor told reporters, adding it is "time to shift our focus now more toward recovery and not restrictions."
The lifting of restrictions comes Wednesday.
Hamilton County and five other counties with locally run health departments can continue mask requirements. But Hamilton County's mask mandate is already expected to expire Thursday under plans announced last month by county Mayor Jim Coppinger.
Coppinger told reporters Tuesday that "our intent was to lift the mask mandate on the 29th, so really there wasn't anything there that impacted us as far as going forward [with] what we were going to do."
Noting Lee's chief of staff briefed him Monday on the governor's plan, Coppinger said Lee's "concern was about opening up the economy as well, and that's something that we've already done here in Hamilton County. From where we sit, I would just say this, just speaking for myself, not for the health department, but we want to remain extremely diligent in being cautious going forward because of these variants."
Hamilton County Health Department Administrator Becky Barnes said that the agency's recommendation is that people should still wear masks in the circumstances outlined by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"What's changing is that there's not going to be a mandate — we won't be enforcing it with inspectors — but we are asking people to continue to still wear masks," Barnes said.
Dr. Fernando Urrego, interim health officer with the Hamilton County Health Department, emphasized "we're still in a pandemic. Our numbers continue to be high, so I don't think from an infection standpoint we're anywhere close to being done."
The governor said his Executive Order 80 will maintain Tennessee's access to federal funding, including food stamps and cost reimbursements for the Tennessee National Guard's testing and vaccination efforts. It extends through May 31 and is expected to be renewed.
Another step the state is taking, Lee said, is offering walk-up vaccine options. Although the COVID-19 vaccine continues to be available to Tennesseans aged 16 and older by appointment, local health departments will now offer a walk-up option.
Legislative Democrats pointed out that Tennessee is 47th out of the 50 states in terms of the percentage of residents vaccinated. And, citing CDC data, Democrats noted Tennessee has had the nation's fourth worst coronavirus outbreak on a per-person basis.
'Back to business'
Lee, whose response to COVID-19 pandemic has been challenged as too strict by some fellow Republicans in the General Assembly and elsewhere since first allowing for local mandates, said that "as Tennesseans continue to get vaccinated, it's time to lift remaining local restrictions, focus on economic recovery and get back to business in Tennessee."
Lee told reporters that "we've entered a new season and have significant tools at our disposal."
Among those critical of Lee's previous actions has been Maury County Mayor Andy Ogles. A former director of Americans for Prosperity's Tennessee operation, Ogles is seen as a potential challenger to Lee in the 2022 gubernatorial primary.
Dr. Jason Martin, a Crossville, Tennessee, critical care physician treating COVID-19 patients, had a different sort of criticism of the governor on Tuesday.
"We had a chance to get through this crisis by pulling through together, but instead Gov. Lee abandoned his responsibility and put the burden on individual businesses, teachers, parents and communities to fight this global pandemic all on their own," he stated.
Martin also said the "partisan attacks on the science of masking, the refusal to issue health safety orders like mask requirements, prolonged the virus' grip in Tennessee, made it harder for schools and businesses to stay open and led to entirely avoidable closures, hospitalizations and deaths."
Lee avoided issuing a statewide mask mandate. Instead, the governor effectively delegated decisions on mask requirements to the state's 95 counties.
Executive Order 80 revokes that authority from the 89 counties with state-run health departments. Lee has requested the other six counties — Hamilton, Shelby, Davidson, Knox, Madison and Sullivan — to lift all health restrictions no later than the end of May.
A bill pushed by Rep. Jason Zachary, R-Knoxville, to strip the authority of the six health boards to oversee pandemic response and hand the power over to mayors appears to have fizzled.
Executive Order 80 also extends what Lee is calling "helpful" deregulatory provisions to allow residents, businesses and other organizations time to adapt their operations in anticipation of ending restrictions.
The governor told reporters that local capacity limits would be dropped as well as temperature checks on customers and "other burdens on operation." Lee said "it's time for us" to get back to "weddings and conventions, concerts, parades and proms and everything in between. To have them without limits on gathering sizes or arbitrary restrictions."
Lee also announced he has "retired" his voluntary "Tennessee Pledge" program which encouraged but never required businesses to take precautions such as mask-wearing and social distancing to control the spread of the virus.
Tennesseans, Lee said, "now know how to manage their own day-to-day operations without a government pledge — even if it was a voluntary one."
State Health Commissioner Dr. Lisa Piercey told reporters she doesn't have the authority to take any action against the independent metro health departments should they not follow the governor's wishes.
"Just because the requirement goes away doesn't mean the masks are going to go away forever and ever. People can still wear masks if they feel uncomfortable or if a private entity wants to have an organizational policy they can still do that."
Up until now, the state has followed the CDC's guidelines when it comes to masking.
"The CDC is a bit more conservative, because they're trying to take care of the whole nation, and states are in different spots," Piercey said.
She said that people may want to consider wearing a mask in crowded indoor settings.
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