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AP Photo, Mark Humphrey / Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee gives the command for drivers to start their engines at the NASCAR All-Star auto race at Bristol Motor Speedway on July 15. Sullivan County and NASCAR required masks for guests "in high traffic areas inside the stadium."

While COVID-19 marches over us like William Tecumseh Sherman's scorched earth march to the sea, most of the South's Republican governors — especially Tennessee's Bill Lee — dither.

White House COVID-19 adviser Deborah Birx was in Nashville on Monday to warn that Tennessee is at an "inflection point" on the virus' spread, saying that with coronavirus positivity rates now hitting 10% and higher, all 95 county mayors should mandate residents wear masks, close bars and implement social distancing to show the spread of this dangerous disease that in our county alone has infected more than 5,000 that we know of and killed 45.

And though most rural county mayors are not now mandating mask use in public, Lee could order it statewide. He just doesn't. He has declined to make the call, leaving it instead to local officials who apparently fear their voters and business donors. Only 14 days ago, Lee, who has said he trusted Tennesseans to make the right decision, was modeling a no-mask "trust" as he talked with Fox News at the Bristol Motor Speedway.

For Lee and Georgia's Brian Kemp and Florida's Ron DeSantis, it seems the dithering is more to please a national audience of one. Never mind that in mid-July, even President Donald Trump gave them de facto permission by finally allowing himself to be photographed wearing a face mask as he walked down a hallway at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland.

Birx said that while she spoke to the governor about a statewide mandate, her purpose in speaking with Lee, a Republican, and Nashville Mayor John Cooper, a Democrat, and other officials was to emphasize among other things that Tennessee is now in the "red zone" category in terms of coronavirus infections increasing.

"What does that mean? They were 10% test positivity, they are now over 10% positivity, and the No. 1 bullet is mandate masks, close your bars and have social distancing," she said. "Tell every Tennessean to not socially gather with more than 10 people, to not socially gather even with your relatives if they've been elsewhere because of the chances of spreading this virus."

She couldn't get much more clear than that. She added that wearing masks is "the power that we have in our hands" to battle virus spread.

And 12 representatives from the state's medical and education fields piled on in a virtual meeting Monday to try moving Lee to at least "look into" a statewide mask mandate and slow down next month's scheduled reopening of schools.

Dr. Aaron Milstone, a critical care physician and pulmonologist who treats COVID-19 patients, said the virus is spreading "uncontrolled through our communities, needlessly endangering our children, our families and our teachers."

"Lee has claimed for months that he is pursuing a targeted approach, but the results speak for themselves," Milstone said. "It is simply not working."

Hermitage-based physician Amy Gordon Bono said Tennessee's public health crisis "continues to worsen."

"To be clear, our goal should be less than 10 new cases per 100,000 persons per day for 14 days in a row. We need low incidents, and we need stability of those low incidents," she said.

And Nashville pulmonologist Stephen Heyman, who has fought a personal battle with the virus, asked Lee on Tuesday to put his convictions behind his 2018 campaign's "man of faith" slogan by "having the courage" to lead and mandate statewide mask use.

Still, we dither. We dither here at the end of July. Schools are supposed to reopen or at least partially reopen in two weeks. Does anyone like the odds on this countdown? Is anyone going to enforce the truancy laws when parents simply won't send kids to school and teachers won't show up?

So far, Lee's answer is a public service announcement campaign featuring famous Tennesseans talking about mask use. He believes, he told reporters, that statewide mandates are not the best strategy, not the best approach.

Well, obviously not mandating a mask order hasn't been so effective, either. Tennessee reported 2,871 new cases on Sunday. Just on Sunday. And we're knocking on the door of 100,000 cases overall since the pandemic began, with about 1,000 deaths.

If what we're already doing — opting for "personal (or corporate) responsibility" — had been effective, Tennessee wouldn't be at such a dire crossroads. If "trust" was all it took, we'd not be in the "red zone" Dr. Birx describes.

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