U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander on Sunday said that “millions who admire President Trump would follow his lead if he wore a mask when appropriate.”
The Maryville Republican, Tennessee’s senior — and outgoing — representative in the U.S. Senate, made the comments on CNN’s “Inside Politics,” as he joined Manu Raju for a discussion about the United States’ response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Alexander, who earlier in the week criticized rioters who are targeting statues and memorials across the nation, added: “It also would help to get rid of this political debate that if you’re for President Trump, you don’t wear a mask, and if you’re against President Trump, you do wear a mask.”
“most of the time he’s with people who have been tested, he’s been tested,” Alexander added, “but there are times when he could wear a mask or the vice president could wear a mask. I think it would be a sign of strength if he would from time to time wear a mask and remind everyone it’s a good way (to slow the spread of Covid-19).”
The wearing of masks has been recommended by the CDC but has morphed into a major political issue in the U.S. since the coronavirus pandemic reached America’s shores in late February. Part of the resistance to wearing masks has stemmed from resentment over government mandates that the masks be worn in some urban areas. And Trump has helped fuel the debate by declining to wear a mask, saying he doesn’t feel it’s necessary. Vice President Mike Pence has also been reluctant to wear masks in public.
However, the debate over masks isn’t just marked by the political divide. It’s also evolved into an urban-rural issue, with rural Americans much less likely to wear masks, even in those rural communities that have seen significant spread of the coronavirus.
Scott County is not one of those communities. There is only one active case of coronavirus in Scott County, have been only 14 cases of the virus total, and have been no community spread of the virus.
The same can be said for much of rural Tennessee, but the virus is a growing concern in most of the state’s urban areas, including Knoxville, where there were well over 200 active cases of the virus and 15 people hospitalized on Sunday. There are more than 2,000 active cases of Covid-19 illness in both Nashville and Memphis.
Both of those cities have issued orders for residents to wear masks. The mandate is held up by a legal challenge in Memphis, but masks became mandatory in Nashville on Sunday.
“As Nashvillians, we all have a duty to one another to take the necessary precautions to slow the spread of the virus,” Mayor John Cooper said Saturday. “Let’s continue to wear face coverings, observe social distancing, and do everything we can to keep ourselves healthy and save lives.”
Beginning July 3, it will be a Class C misdemeanor to be caught without a mask in Nashville. However, children under the age of two and persons who “cannot medically tolerate” wearing a mask are exempt. People will not be required to verify their medical condition if they decline to wear a mask for health reasons.
Masks will also not be required in private homes, private vehicles or educational institutions, nor for those working alone in separate office spaces, in non-public places with “adequate area” for social distancing, when eating or drinking at a restaurant, while outdoors in public spaces with proper distancing maintained, or while engaging in outdoor activities such as walking, swimming, running, biking or hiking. Finally, masks will not be required in places of worship, or in buildings owned or managed by the state or federal governments.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee has recommended that residents of the state wear masks, but his administration has said that a statewide order for masks will not be implemented because the governor does not believe in a one-size-fits-all approach to combatting the coronavirus.
But many Tennesseans of stature have weighed in on the subject, including University of Tennessee Athletics Director Phillip Fulmer.
“Everybody keeps asking me if we’re going to be playing football with fans this season. Truth is, Vol fans statewide can help determine that outcome. From now through kickoff, masks are a must,” Fulmer said Thursday.
Tennessee has more than 13,000 active cases of coronavirus and hospitalizations related to the virus are increasing — though the rate of hospitalization appears to be decreasing slightly. The state did not update its numbers Sunday after a large queue of test results caused the reporting system developed by the CDC and used by Tennessee and other states to crash.
In his interview with Raju, Alexander — who is not seeking re-election — defended the Trump administration’s handling of the coronavirus response.
“I think in some ways the United States has done a good job,” Alexander said. “For example, one thing that will make the most difference is tests, treatments and vaccines. And we’re moving more rapidly than we ever have.”
One area where the U.S. didn’t do as well, Alexander said, was the first test put forth by the CDC.
“But let’s remember that on March 1, the New York Times reported on its front page that most experts agree that the United States is about as well prepared as any country in the world to manage a virus like this,” he said. “And this virus surprised the experts. It moves more rapidly than people expected. It moves silently, and it’s been a problem. And it’s a problem today.”
Alexander said that enough tests are being made available that all schools and colleges planning to reopen in the fall will have “an adequate number of tests for systematic testing.” But on the whole, he said, “It’s a virus that we are having a hard time dealing with. And then some states are doing better than others.”