State of Tennessee / Gov. Bill Lee's official government Twitter account posted this photo of Lee, at right, in close proximity to children in Perry County without a mask. Children under 12 are not eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine.

NASHVILLE — Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee is sharply criticizing President Joe Biden's new executive orders regarding employers and federal workers amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The orders require most federal workers to be vaccinated and mandate employers with more than 100 workers to require vaccines or weekly testing for the virus.

"'This is not about freedom' is a phrase that should never come out of a U.S. President's mouth," Lee, a Republican, tweeted Thursday evening, using a partial quote from Biden's public comments.

"This is not about freedom or personal choice. It's about protecting yourself and those around you," Biden said during his address.

"My plan also takes on elected officials in states that are undermining you and these lifesaving actions," Biden went on to say. "Right now, local school officials are trying to keep children safe in a pandemic while their governor picks a fight with them and even threatens their salaries or their jobs. Talk about bullying in schools.

"If they will not help, if those governors won't help us beat the pandemic, I'll use my power as president to get them out of the way," Biden said.

Hospital emergency rooms and intensive care units in Hamilton County and other areas have risked becoming overwhelmed by the influx of seriously ill coronavirus patients in their facilities. The Tennessee National Guard has been mobilized to assist. About 44% of Tennesseans have been fully vaccinated.

Lee last month issued an executive order to require parental opt-outs for any mask mandates imposed on students by local governments and school systems.

"For a fight that requires working together, a lot of cynical and divisive edicts came out of the White House today pitting the vaccinated against the unvaccinated, businesses against employees, and the federal government against states," Lee said on Twitter.

"The Constitution won't allow this power grab, and in the meantime, I will stand up for all Tennesseans," Lee tweeted. "To be clear: the vaccine is the best tool we have to combat the pandemic but heavy-handed mandates are the wrong approach."

Lee's order to block universal mask requirement has already drawn the attention of Biden's administration and a federal lawsuit in Shelby County by two families who say their medically fragile children have been placed in jeopardy.

Governor unmasked

During a news conference, Lee — who is vaccinated — defended himself from criticisms by Democrats and others on social media for his not having worn a mask this week in Perry County as he and First Lady Maria Lee participated in an event sponsored by Samaritan's Feet to provide free new socks and shoes to local children.

Photos of the governor in close proximity to children posted to social media drew barbs from critics.

"So I'm vaccinated, and I'm going to act like that," Lee told reporters Thursday. "And if you're asking whether I was concerned about those kids, we actually went to a rural distressed county. I washed the feet of elementary children, removed their socks and their old shoes.

"I care deeply about those kids, which is why we were there," Lee said.

State Health Commissioner Dr. Lisa Piercey, who had joined Lee, responded to a reporter's question as to whether vaccinated people can spread the virus.

"Vaccinated people can transmit the disease, particularly in the first couple of days of illness if they have the illness. We do know that vaccinated people, their viral load goes down quicker, so they typically don't spread it as much, but the answer to your question is yes," Piercey said.

Lee's tweets criticizing Biden drew both criticism and applause from others on social media.

"Attention football fans..." tweeted Tennessee House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville. "@POTUS, i.e., President Biden, wants your sports team to require you to be vaccinated or prove you are Covid-free to attend football games in all open-air stadiums. What's next??? @POTUS requiring them to play one-hand touch football?"

Teresa Brooks was critical, tweeting "It's not about 'freedom' when what you do affects me, my kids, or my family!!! It's about public safety!!!"

Contact Andy Sher at or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.