As Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger appears poised to do the right thing and extend our local countywide mask mandate, a number of Republican governors in other states are looking at the novel coronavirus surge and doing the same or more — statewide.
* North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, even in October, spoke out against his conservative constituents who might be thinking mask-wearing is a political statement, but still resisted a mask mandate, saying that a mask mandate was "not a job for government; this is a job for everybody." Now, a month later, with his state leading the nation in per-capita infections, he has ditched politics and announced statewide mask requirements that carry fines of up to $1,000 for non-compliance.
* Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, throughout the summer and early fall, also resisted a mask mandate, framing it as more of a burden than a help. But last week in a video message to all of Utah, he chose the power of government to protect Americans over the politics of personal freedoms. "We cannot afford to debate this issue any longer. Individual freedom is certainly important, and it is our rule of law that protects that freedom."
* Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds in July said no to what she called a "feel-good" mask mandate when a leaked White House document recommended a mask mandate for much of her state. Monday in a prime-time address to Iowans announcing a mask mandate and other measures, she said "It's up to all of us so that the worst-case scenarios don't become reality."
But, as we said, those are Republican governors "in other states." Not Republican governors in Tennessee and Georgia.
In fact, only 14 states remain without state-ordered, statewide mask mandates; two of the 14 are Tennessee and Georgia.
In all of the Southeast, five states do not have mask mandates, also including Mississippi, South Carolina and Florida. Can there be any doubt why our coronavirus cases are making steep climbs?
According to Vox and the COVID Tracking Project, nine of the top 11 states that saw the highest new cases per capita in October did not have statewide mask mandates. On that list, Tennessee — where 25 of our 95 counties do have county mask mandates — was number 11.
What this tells us is that Tennessee Republican Gov. Bill Lee and Georgia Republican Gov. Brian Kemp, with their foot-dragging and apparent insistence on clinging to mistaken political themes rather than listening to smart science, are further endangering all of us, as well as our state and local economies.
And it isn't as though they don't have science-based evidence. Research released last week by the Vanderbilt Department of Health Policy found that coronavirus death rates are significantly higher in Tennessee counties that do not require residents to wear masks. The research shows counties that never adopted a mask mandate had recorded about four deaths per 100,000 residents as of the first week in October, while counties with mandates had recorded about one or two deaths per 100,000 residents.
One would think that research, by highlighting concerns about the state's county-by-county approach, would increase pressure on Lee to enact a statewide mandate. Especially after the the White House virus task force in mid-October quietly told Tennessee officials that "a statewide mask mandate must be implemented" to curb its growing spread of COVID-19. (We say "quietly" told Tennessee because the White House and governor did not discuss the advice publicly before the report emerged in a open records request, according to the Tennessean.)
But, as often happens in Tennessee and other red states, the political plot thickens.
Trump repeatedly said he was not in favor of mask mandates, and was often at odds with his own health advisers. Lee, too, despite letters and petitions from physicians, made it clear for months that he did not think masks should be required statewide. Even after receiving the Oct. 11 White House instruction, and without mentioning it, Lee still resisted.
"Statewide, one-size-fits-all mandates are not as effective in many cases as local decision making," he said in a news conference a few days later.
Now, a month has passed, and our COVID-19 surges are even worse. Still, Lee is mum.
But guess what: So is that White House instruction.
According to a Monday broadcast of NewsChannel 5 Investigates, in Nashville, "For reasons that just aren't clear, the White House has now backed off that recommendation," according to WTVF Chief Investigative Reporter Phil Williams.
In the following week's White House recommendations, there was no mention of a mandate. That's still true. The Nov. 8 recommendations suggested: "message to communities" that they not gather without a mask with individuals living outside their households and "always wear a mask in public places."
NewsChannel 5 says the task force has continued to suggest that other states impose mask requirements, so it's not entirely clear why Tennessee was suddenly excluded. The station says Lee spokesman Gillum Ferguson denied that the Lee administration asked for the changes.
Whatever the reasoning, Lee has let Tennesseans down. Since mid-October, COVID deaths in Tennessee have shot up 41%, new confirmed cases are up 45% and hospitalizations are up 67%, according to NewsChannel 5.
Gov. Lee must invoke a statewide mask mandate.