Tennessee Governor Bill Lee Tells Large Counties to Lift Mask Mandates by Memorial Day

The governor of Tennessee is ordering the state's local governments to lift mask mandates in public places and is telling larger counties to lift their COVID-19 restrictions like mask requirements by Memorial Day, the Associated Press reported.

Bill Lee's declaration that COVID-19 is no longer an imminent threat comes despite Tennessee's rank as one of the bottom three states for percentage of adults with at least one vaccine dose, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A number of other Southern and Midwestern states, including Alabama, Iowa, Mississippi, Montana, North Dakota and Texas, have also lifted mask mandates. Businesses in Texas were permitted to reopen at 100% capacity in March.

"We have to learn to live with it just like we do any risk," Lee said at a Tuesday press conference. "It's time for celebrations and weddings and conventions and concerts and parades and proms and everything in between, to happen without limits on gathering sizes or other arbitrary restrictions on those events."

Nashville will keep its mask mandate, while the legal department in Memphis said it was looking at how Lee's order would impact its ordinance, according to city Chief Operating Officer Doug McGowen, who added that it could be several weeks before the city lifts its mandate.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Tennessee Governor Bill Lee announced Tuesday that the state would lift mask mandates in most counties. In the photo, the exterior of the Nashville Palace is seen on April 22, 2021, in Nashville, Tennessee. Jason Kempin/Getty Images

Lee said a marketing campaign to promote the new vaccines is coming soon, but he said it's not underway yet because the vaccine has just become widely available in recent weeks.

The governor, who is up for re-election next year, said his attention is now turning to helping the economy recover.

"It's clear that in some communities, where they have a very high level of vaccination, that it's probably reasonable for people to request that," McGowen said during a Tuesday news conference. "But remember, our percentage is not as high as some other communities. So, we're not there yet, to the point where it's reasonable to lift a mask requirement."

Nashville announced Tuesday that it will lift all other restrictions on capacity for businesses and gatherings starting May 14, saying that's six weeks from when the vaccine became available to all adults in the city—the amount of time it takes for the slowest vaccine to kick in fully.

Throughout the pandemic, which has killed more than 12,100 people in Tennessee, Lee brushed aside pressure to implement a statewide mask mandate, but did leave open the option for individual counties. In 89 of the 95 counties, there have not been virus-related limits on businesses and social gatherings since last fall, when Lee lifted them.

Lee has also said Tennessee was among the last states to implement stay-at-home orders amid the virus last spring, and one of the first to reopen.

There were 268 new cases of COVID-19 reported per 100,000 people in Tennessee over the past two weeks, ranking 18th in the country, according to Johns Hopkins University researchers.

Lee said Tennessee will remain in a state of emergency for "deregulatory issues" with health care and due to federal funding requirements.

Lee even said he is setting aside the "Tennessee Pledge"—a set of state suggestions for precautions businesses could take during COVID-19.

"These guidelines will today be officially retired in order to send a clear message: that Tennesseans now know how to manage their own day-to-day operations without a government playbook, even if it was a voluntary one," Lee said.

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