NASHVILLE — Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee all but declared victory over coronavirus on Monday.
Delivering his third State of the State address to a joint session of the Tennessee General Assembly and a statewide TV audience, Lee cited the state’s rapidly declining covid cases as proof that his limited approach to the pandemic was the correct approach.
“Across the world this pandemic has exposed that when the government feels unprepared, it’s a natural temptation to think growing the size of government and reaching for the nearest mandate will save everything,” Lee said. “But not in Tennessee.
“The worldwide data on government’s success is mixed, but Tennessee’s approach has been consistent: maintain local control whenever possible, rely on people more than the government, and keep a primary focus on what we can directly impact,” Lee added.
Lee said that Tennessee was the first state in the nation to purchase masks for every citizen, one of the first to make free testing available to every resident, and one of the first to test every nursing home resident and staff member.
“This decision paid off, as Tennessee has had a much lower fatality rate than the country as a whole in long term care facilities,” Lee said of the nursing home testing. “And that fatality rate is not just a statistic – it equates to hundreds of lives saved thanks to the swift actions of state and local government and the nursing homes and long term care facilities across our state.”
Lee also cited Tennessee’s decision to reopen schools in August, saying that educating kids is one of the most critical functions of society and pointing out that all but one of Tennessee’s 147 school districts have an in-person option for students.
“I’m proud of our schools, and our collective decision to follow the science when it comes to getting our kids back in the classroom,” he said.
Lee said Tennessee is also leading the way in vaccine distribution, pointing out that former CDC director Robert Redfield recognized Tennessee’s approach as “the most medically sound and practical plan in the country.”
Lee’s approach to coronavirus has been consistently criticized, from early issues with transparency in data being reported by the state health department to a later decision to not issue a statewide mask mandate. Tennessee was one of only a handful of states that did not implement a mask mandate; instead, Lee punted the decision to county mayors, signing an executive order that gave each county mayor the authority to issue a mask mandate within their jurisdiction.
In November and December, Tennessee’s coronavirus cases surged; at one point, the Volunteer State had a greater number of new Covid-19 cases per capita than anywhere else in the world. That heightened the chorus of criticism aimed at the governor’s approach. But on Monday, Lee said that the limited approach paid off.
“There was more pressure than ever to implement lockdowns and mandates and stay at home orders, but we trusted our people,” he said. “We encouraged people to gather differently in their homes for holidays. Tennesseans responded, and helped us blunt a post-holiday surge.”
Lee said that case counts have plummeted by more than two-thirds in the past six weeks, with the number of covid cases in hospitals dropping by more than 60%.
“We have had this success thanks to the people of our state and the brave service of our health care workers,” he said. “So I want to say directly to them: thank you. The successes we are seeing now are because of your diligence and sacrifice.”
Lee specifically pointed out that his executive orders used to combat the virus protected churches from being regulated. And, he said, the state’s economy is now rebounding.
“Many sectors of our economy are roaring,” he said. “In fact, many segments of our economy are more prosperous than this time last year.”
Tennessee’s unemployment, which rose as high as 15.5%, is currently at 6.4%.
“Our workforce participation rate has improved drastically during the last year,” Lee said. “It’s better today than it was before the pandemic, and we have now exceeded the national average for the first time in 25 years.”
Lee pointed to a recent report indicating that Tennessee is one of just seven states nationwide with positive economic growth since April 2020, when the economy was shuttered in an attempt to combat coronavirus.