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Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / Governor Bill Lee speaks at the 42nd Annual Chattanooga Area Leadership Prayer Breakfast on Oct. 26.

Gov. Bill Lee should veto the big anti-mask and anti-vaccine "omnibus" bill — or at least parts of it — that Tennessee lawmakers blustered to pass last week.

We posited on Tuesday that he would not veto it, based on his tweet on Saturday: "I commend members of the General Assembly for working to address the Biden administration's overreach into our state, our workforce and our schools. We are evaluating each piece of legislation to ensure we push back on harmful federal policies and do right by Tennesseans."

And now we question whether our governor — who would not himself call the special session though lawmakers urged him to do so — would have the courage to veto these nonsense mandates on mandates. Especially after he said many times that his "strategy" is to take a "limited government approach," and that he had "trust" in Tennesseans to make their own choices for their families, with both masks and vaccines.

But perhaps a better question is whether Lee's ego will prevail and lead him to put his thumb on those upstart lawmakers for going around him and calling their own session to take these actions. Some of which drew enough ire from big businesses like Ford and VW to make the lawmakers carve out exceptions for them.

Other business groups aren't mollified, and this plethora of mandates against mandates has the GOP and businesses across the state in an odd spot: On opposing sides.

As our colleagues to the right have noted, neither Lee nor the lawmakers who passed these measures were acting as conservatives. Conservatives normally rally around both disease prevention and business independence. Before and during the session, businesses made it clear they wanted no part of conflicting mandates that could tie down commerce.

But instead of listening to business leaders, Tennessee's supermajority Republican lawmakers listened instead to supporters and funders from the far right extremes of their party.

And the only folks not heard at all — not even thought about — was us, the 6.9 million residents of Tennessee who have been battling the myriad ravages of the dangerous and preventable COVID-19 that has sickened 1.3 million of us and killed more than 16,400 in the last 19 months.

All Lee and the lawmakers could talk about was how they don't want the federal government — at least not a Democratic one — telling them what they can and cannot do. Federal overreach is bad. State overreach is fine.

And thus our so-called statesmen even took the tools of local prevention away, banning mask and vaccine mandates in most businesses, governments and schools.

If Lee signs this bill, counties like Hamilton can no longer chart their own quarantine guidelines. Only the state health commissioner has that exclusive power. Lawmakers gave themselves a sort-of escape hatch. The trouble is that the safety exit can't be reached unless there are piles of bodies to climb up in order to get there.

The bill explicitly bars localities from implementing mask mandates unless local COVID-19 caseloads skyrocket. Before a short, 14-day mask mandate can be called, the governor must declare a state of emergency and the county in question must record at least 1,000 new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents over 14 days.

As bad as the pandemic has been in Hamilton County, in one of the least vaccinated states in the country, we've only reached that level twice. The first time was a seven-week period from December to January during the winter surge that was the deadliest to date. The second time was for a month during the late summer surge fueled by the Delta variant.

Hamilton County was under a mask mandate during the first strong surge, but surrounding counties were not. Just before the second surge in the late summer, our mask mandate was ended at the end of April. Then as schools opened and large numbers of students were opted out of mask-wearing by their parents, school-aged children soon made up a quarter of Hamilton County's new COVID-19 cases.

The same was true across much of the state and Tennessee took the No. 1 ranking in the country for new COVID cases per capita. We're still No. 2, and that isn't because our new cases are dropping.

The state-by-state charts published daily in Chattanooga Times Free Press show Tennessee's daily new cases (each based on a previous 14-day average) are still steadily rising. For instance, the pages show our state had 18,367 new cases per capita on Oct. 22 and 18,572 new cases per capita on Thursday — an increase of 205.

But our lawmakers were not hearing any of that pain. All they were hearing were the whines of people bemoaning the imposition of a mask and needle shot on their fragile individual liberty. The heck with public good.

Quite simply, our GOP lawmakers were listening to the pied pipers of primary elections, fearing that far more extreme candidates would pop up to challenge them for lacking appropriate redness.

Lee is playing that game, too. At least he is on Twitter when he call out a Democratic president calling for masks and vaccines.

But Lee also is trying to straddle the fence. He didn't call the special session. He left that to lawmakers. And the lawmakers called his bluff and now are leaving it to him to mend fences with still upset business leaders.

So the real question is which will win out with this governor: The siren songs of primary campaigning or his pride with a side dressing of business temerity?

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