Gov. Bill Lee on Monday said he wants to see high school football and girls’ soccer take place this fall, and he believes decisions on students wearing masks should be decided on the local level.
Lee made those comments during a conference call with reporters from community newspapers. The call was hosted by the Tennessee Press Association.
He also spoke about a record number of coronavirus cases.
The Tennessee Department of Health on Monday afternoon released its updated list of coronavirus statistics. There are 65,274 reported cases, with an increase of 3,314 for the day. The recovered tally is 36,996, a daily increase of 1,141. There are 749 deaths attributed to the disease, an increase of 8. There have been 3,284 hospitalized at some point in the pandemic, a daily increase of 34. A total of 1,053,424 have been tested, a daily increase of 35,926.
The daily tally represents a daily record for testing and a daily record for number of cases, Lee said. Some of the results likely are due to a lag from the weekend. Lagging data is a national problem. The number of tests done daily has doubled or tripled from early in the pandemic. The state’s Unified Command is working on addressing testing capacity. Reporting test results is prioritized for the highest-risk and positive results, while negative results are lower priority.
Lee said the mortality rate continues to be relatively low. Tennessee is the 16th most populous state but for most of the pandemic has been 40th in the nation per capita for mortality. He attributed that to protecting nursing homes.
Hospitalization numbers are climbing but remain “workable,” Lee said. There is capacity for numbers of beds, ICU beds and ventilators. He said he is on frequent calls with the Tennessee Hospital Association.
He said he urges people to wear masks and said he wears a mask when he goes somewhere. He delegated decisions over masks to county mayors. Masks are not a political thing, and doctors have worn them for hundreds of years, he said.
Lee provided an update on funding that is being distributed to businesses via the CARES Act. These are businesses that closed because of executive orders. The state has given the grants to 31,000 businesses. To qualify, a business must have up-to-date information on file with the Tennessee Department of Revenue.
Lee said children learn best in school, and the Education Department is providing local districts with information to ensure they can reopen safely with social distancing and PPEs.
“Our goal is to get kids into the classrooms,” he said.
However, that is a local decision.
He also said that he signed the fetal heartbeat bill Monday morning but it swiftly encountered opposition. (A federal judge issued an injunction less than an hour after he signed the bill.)
Following is a summary of reporters’ questions and Lee’s answers.
A reporter from La Follette asked: High school football and girls’ soccer are in limbo. How would you weigh in for exceptions to continue?
Lee: It’s clear they will be part of “our landscape this fall.” His administration is discussing this with the TSSAA and has asked the organization to provide a list of guidance to be used for practice and games. The state will make sure those suggestions “fit within the broad guidelines we have.” He said he expects to receive the list soon.
A reporter from Farragut asked about the Capitol Commission’s 9-2 vote to not only remove the bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest from the Capitol but also two others, including Civil War Admiral David Farragut, for whom the city is named. The reporter said he cannot find any racial controversy around the admiral. He asked Lee if the governor would recommend the Tennessee Historical Commission confirm or override the Capitol Commission, especially on the admiral’s bust.
Lee: There is a real need for people to know who Farragut and Forrest were. Forrest had a complicated life that included leadership in the Ku Klux Klan but later in life had a story of redemption.
“It’s a complex history, and I’ve said all along we don’t remove history, we don’t whitewash history…but we need to provide context.”
The Capitol Commission asked why those military figures were in the building instead of government leaders tied to the Capitol. Forrest’s bust generated controversy for 40 years and needs context. The Capitol Commission believes the best place for that context is the State Museum, where there will be a display on military leaders, including Farragut.
Lee spoke against the “mob mentality approach” to getting rid of history.
The General Assembly created a process, which was followed.
A reporter from Murfreesboro asked: Are hospitalized patients being treated with drugs like Remdesivir or Hydroxychloroquine and, if so, are they working? Do you think re-opening of businesses contributed to the increase in case count? What about the protests?
Lee: We are receiving regular shipments from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services of Remdesivir, which are being given to hospitals across state. That medicine is being used. One encouraging thing we learned is how the virus operates and how best to treat patients. We will know more in six months, and today we treat patients differently than in the beginning. That is one reason we have shorter hospital stays, less time on ventilators, a better mortality rate, and have drugs.
Hydroxychloroquine may be used by private providers who don’t report to the Health Department. But, Remdesivir is being delivered to the Health Department and sent to hospitals.
The increase is due to people “relaxing their approach to life. We had stay at home orders and people were closed up and diligent. That was unsustainable. We began the process of reopening with Tennessee Pledge and schools. And doing guidance for football.”
Even though the virus exists, people must go on with their lives but work hard to mitigate the spread. That is why masks are important. That is why we must be vigilant on nursing homes and why the state is requiring weekly testing of workers. Other ways to mitigate the spread is by washing hands and staying home when sick.
A reporter from Sevier County asked: Our county has been a hotspot for some time. You delegated mask authority to county governors. Are you looking to do more orders to delegate powers to local governments and any legislation to address this issue so executive orders will not be needed?
Lee: The General Assembly will probably look at addressing these issues. I am not looking at additional measures. I always believed people should adopt habits rather than using “heavy-handed” mandates. People have a choice to stay home or not; the same with masks and social distancing. They have a responsibility as well. The state will protect the most vulnerable.
A reporter from Dyersburg asked: When children return to school, will you require masks or will that be decided by districts?
Lee: Football and to-go alcohol seem to be of the most interest to people. Whenever possible, I am giving authority to local jurisdictions, especially locally elected officials. Locals understand their issues better than people in Nashville. We will give advice and help to any local district that asks, but they will decide.