The Center Square
Gov. Bill Lee has signed an executive order that limits indoor public gatherings in Tennessee to 10 or fewer people until Jan. 19.
The order does not apply to gatherings at places of worship or for weddings or funerals. Lee announced the restrictions Sunday evening in a highly anticipated statewide address.
“We’ve seen firsthand that Thanksgiving gatherings and extended time indoors have been the principal driver in spreading COVID-19 like wildfire,” Lee said. “Tennessee cannot sustain a similar surge after Christmas or New Year’s.”
Lee asked Tennesseans to not participate in holiday gatherings with anyone outside their own household, and he strongly urged employers and businesses to take steps to equip and require employees to work from home when possible.
Many expected Lee to announce a statewide mask mandate in his six-minute speech Sunday. Lee asked Tennesseans to wear masks, but he did not announce any requirement to do so.
“Many think a statewide mandate would improve mask wearing,” Lee said. “Many think it would have the opposite effect. This has been a heavily politicized issue: please do not get caught up in that. Masks work. And I want every Tennessee to wear one.”
Roughly 70% of Tennesseans live in areas where masks are required by local governments, Lee said, and roughly 80% of Tennesseans report wearing masks most or all of the time.
Tennessee has the highest average of daily cases per 100,000 people in the past seven days, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The state surpassed more than 6,000 COVID-19 deaths over the weekend. The Tennessee Department of Health reported the percent of positive tests Saturday was a record 30.46%.
TDOH officials announced earlier Sunday that a Christmas surge of COVID-19 cases could “break” the state’s hospital system.
“We want to preserve access to hospital resources,” Health Commissioner Dr. Lisa Piercey said. “If we have another surge over Christmas, it will break our hospitals. Don’t gather with those outside of your households. We have to change our behavior over the next several weeks.”
The state has deployed National Guard medical staff to northeast Tennessee and Shelby County to work in hospitals because of staff shortages.
“We are running out of options,” Piercey said. “All of the money in the world can’t buy more staff. That money will only go so far. We have spent all the money we can spend on staff. There are no more staff to spend money on.”
First Lady Maria Lee tested positive for COVID-19 on Saturday after experiencing mild symptoms, according to the governor’s office. The governor and first lady are in quarantine at the governor’s residence.