Gov. Bill Lee, with his assurance Wednesday to reporters that he will sign the shameful COVID-19 state omnibus bill which purports to mandate against federal and local mandates, has come full circle. He has made yet another about-face based solely on partisanship.
When the COVID-19 pandemic began and the president was the former guy who also was a Republican, Lee was so concerned about losing a Tennessee tourism season to the novel coronavirus that not only did he urge masking, he ordered up 5 million knitted black sock masks with a TN on them. Through a no-bid, $8.2 million contract to a North Carolina sock-making company with a facility in nearby Cleveland, Lee had the masks made and ordered them to be distributed free around the state.
"We wanted to get a free mask to Tennesseans who felt like they couldn't afford a mask," Lee told reporters in early May of 2020.
But Lee's efforts to thwart COVID at that juncture didn't stop with masks.
Lee himself, in mid-March of that year, urged the state's public schools to close, and at the end of March, he issued a two-week (later extended through April) statewide "safer at home" order, closing non-essential businesses. More than half of Tennessee's 40,000 state employees were told to work from home, and the state Department of Education partnered with PBS to offer lessons while students were at home.
Those orders followed similar restrictions put in place by mayors in Nashville, Memphis, Knoxville and governors in at least 30 other states.
But a November election later changed things. When Democratic President Joe Biden took office, sped up the manufacture and distribution of the COVID vaccines the former guy had started, and then began pushing for more and continued masking and vaccination, Lee and other Republicans began singing a different song.
Suddenly social distancing, masking and vaccines became a new dog whistle against a Democratic administration that might benefit from the country getting back to some semblance of normal.
Suddenly the same Tennessee governor who gave out free masks and urged schools to close and helped arrange at-home school lessons is ordering that schools must stay open and must allow parents to opt-out their children from face coverings.
This isn't just a Tennessee phenomenon, of course. Last year, Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin praised Trump's "brilliant" Operation Warp Speed which led to the development of our COVID vaccines. This year, Johnson has made a number of false claims about adverse reactions and deaths linked to the vaccines.
And in March this year, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Rome, Georgia, countered a Biden tweet about free vaccines with her own tweet: "Everyone in America can have the COVID-19 vaccine thanks to President Donald J Trump and everyone who worked on Operation Warp Speed. President Trump saved lives! Now OPEN America, OPEN all our children's schools, and END masks mandates!"
But by July, Greene was urging Americans to "just say no" to the vaccine. She even used Nazi-era imagery to criticize the Biden administration's effort to reach unvaccinated people "to be part of the human experiment."
How did we get from Trump saved lives with vaccines to the vaccines being a human experiment under Biden?
No, we can't have it both ways. Greene can't and neither can Lee, who himself tweeted praise to Tennessee's supermajority Republican lawmakers for their COVID omnibus legislation that addresses "the Biden administration's overreach into our state, our workforce and our schools."
Lee isn't fooling anyone. He and the GOP are just as ineffective today as when those 5 million sock masks hit the streets with a weave so breezy you could see daylight through them. Later it also came to light that the masks were treated with a pesticide known as Silvadur to ward off odors, according to the state health department when it stopped distributing the masks.
The sockmaker later clarified that it was actually Silvadur 930, a less harmful version for non-food contact uses in industrial and household woven and non-woven fibers. (The Trump administration's EPA had just weeks before, on April 24, approved Silvadur 930 for "emergency use.")
Amid the controversy, EPA again told the state the chemical was safe. Tennessee immediately praised the Trump EPA as the "gold standard," canceled its own independent testing and endorsed the continued giveaway and use of those masks.
What a difference an election made.
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