In a Monday meeting with Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee and other state officials, Dr. Deborah Birx, the physician who heads up the White House coronavirus task force, urged the governor to implement a statewide mask mandate. Absent that, she publicly called on county mayors across Tennessee’s rural areas to implement mask mandates for their own communities.
“I know some of you find masks uncomfortable,” Birx said. But, “In order to be able to get back to school, in order to be sure businesses stay open, every Tennessean, whether you live in an urban area or a rural area, you need to wear a mask. To protect your family, to protect your grandmother, to protect your grandfather, your aunts, your uncles, who we know can have very serious consequences of this disease — it’s calling on all Tennesseans to make that sacrifice to protect your family, for your children so they can go back to school, to really wear a mask and protect each other.”
Lee has resisted calls to issue a mask mandate for the entire state and did so again on Monday. Instead, the governor previously placed the onus for masks on county mayors, giving each of them across the state to require mask-wearing in their own communities.
Birx called on the mayors to do just that, even though executives in most rural counties have declined to do so in the face of almost certain backlash.
“We’ve done a lot of modeling and we’ve found that if you all wear a mask — all Tennesseans — in every public area, and if you protect the individuals with comorbidities, and you stop going to bars and indeed close the bars, and limit your indoor dining, that we can have as big an impact on decreasing new cases as what we had with sheltering-in-place.”
Earlier in the day, Birx made the same recommendations to Kentucky, and Gov. Andy Beshear agreed, signing an executive order to close bars and limit indoor dining to 25% of restaurant capacity for the next two weeks. Masks were already mandated in Kentucky.
In Tennessee, Gov. Lee agreed with Birx that wearing masks is important — although he again balked at a statewide mandate — but flatly disagreed with ordering bars to close.
“I’ve said from the start of this pandemic that nothing is off the table. I’ve also said we will not shut down the economy again,” Lee said.
The case of Tennessee versus Kentucky is an interesting paradigm. Birx is operating at the behest of the Republican White House, and President Donald Trump last week for the first time endorsed all Americans wearing a mask, calling it “patriotic” to do so. But Beshear, a Democrat, readily implemented the White House’s suggestions, while Lee, a Republican, balked.
Of Birx’s request for a statewide mask mandate, Lee said that he and the doctor might disagree on strategies, but “we all know the best outcome is to have Tennesseans wearing masks. What I want more than anything is for our businesses to continue to operate, for our citizens to be safe, for our lives to move forward to the degree that they can, in ways like going to football games, for our children to be able to go to school in person and to do so in a safe way and have their grandparents protected. Those are the things I want to happen in the midst of this pandemic. I think that’s possible. I think the more people in Tennessee who wear masks, the more likely it is that all of those things can happen at the same time.”
Lee’s administration has also launched a statewide marketing campaign — including in this newspaper — about the importance of wearing masks.
When quizzed by reporters as to why he would not mandate the wearing of masks, Lee said, “I happen to believe that statewide mandates aren’t the best strategy. They aren’t the best approach, they don’t bring about the wearing of masks as effectively as other strategies. If I did, I would do that.”
Birx’s suggestion that masks be mandated statewide came behind closed doors. When she addressed the media, she was complimentary of Tennessee’s stragegy, saying that the governor’s approach was “sound.”
But the doctor made clear that the only way to reverse the spread of Covid-19 illness is for everyone to wear masks. In fact, she said, people who have family members inside the home with underlying health concerns that place them at an increased risk for serious illness from the virus should wear masks even inside their home.
“This is what is possible: We have our freedoms, we can go out, we can socially distance in specific restaurants, we can have SEC football, if together we decrease the case numbers,” Birx said. “Tennessee is at that deflection point. We want to appeal to every Tennessean to wear a mask — particularly rural mayors, if every rural mayor could mandate mask-wearing.
“The virus is here,” Birx added. “You may not be able to see it, but it’s spreading. And it will hit your nursing homes, and it will hit those who have serious consequences to this virus. We know who those people are: People who struggle with weight, people who have diabetes, people who have hypertension, people who have chronic lung, renal and heart disease. We have many Tenesseans who struggle with those issues, and it’s our moment in time to protect them.”
Birx pointed out two specific instances of mask mandates that have worked. In Arizona, the spread of coronavirus appeared uncontrollable. When Phoenix implemented a city-wide mask mandate, closed its bars, and limited indoor dining, the virus suddenly began trending in the opposite direction.
“Even though that state was in a difficult place with extraordinarily high test positivity, they’ve been able to turn that around in the past four weeks,” Birx said. “It’s not just theoretic any longer. It’s clear.”
In her second example, Birx pointed to a situation where two beauticians in Missouri tested positive for coronavirus.
“They wore a mask, all of their clients work a mask, and not a single, single person was infected,” Birx said. This is the power of what we have in our hands to change the transmission of this virus.”
For his part, Gov. Lee said that he will continue to urge Tennesseans to wear masks.
“The governor will continue day after day after day to say to Tennesseans we need you to wear a mask,” Lee said. “President Trump has stated that he thinks it’s patriotic and that Americans should do it, and I agree with President Trump.”
When asked about rural Tennesseans who see masks as a political issue, Birx was blunt.
“If they’re a President Trump supporter and they live in Tennessee and they heard the president say last week that masks are important, they’re hearing that. And I hope the local mayors are hearing that,” she said. “The virus is spreading in rural Tennessee. People in rural Tennessee do not have to come to Nashville or Memphis or another large city in Tennessee to become infected.”
As the virus spreads in rural parts of the state, she said, nursing homes are increasingly at risk.
“We know how vulnerable our Tennesseans are that are in nursing homes,” she said. “I hope out of respect for them and for getting our children back to school across America, that people will heed what the president has asked, what the vice president has asked, what the governor has asked and hopefully what local mayors will ask, that everybody social distance, wear a mask, and protect those who are most vulnerable.”