Tennessee gov: COVID-19 now a 'managed public health issue'

Tennessee gov: COVID-19 now a 'managed public health issue'
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Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee (R) ended the state's pandemic public health orders on Tuesday, including the option for local governments to impose mask mandates for public spaces, and declared that the coronavirus is no longer a public health crisis.

“COVID-19 is now a managed public health issue in Tennessee and no longer a statewide public health emergency,” Lee said in a statement. “As Tennesseans continue to get vaccinated, it’s time to lift remaining local restrictions, focus on economic recovery and get back to business in Tennessee.” 

Tennessee never had a statewide mask mandate, but Lee left the option open for individual counties. On Tuesday, the governor signed an executive order removing that authority in 89 of the state's 95 counties over which he has jurisdiction. 


Lee said he requested that the counties with independent health departments that have remaining business restrictions or mask requirements lift all measures no later than Memorial Day.

Lee, who is up for reelection next year, touted the state's success in getting people vaccinated. Everyone over the age of 16 has been eligible to get a shot for the past month, and he said local health departments will now offer a walk-up option.

"I got a vaccine. It's safe. It's the most effective way to manage our health, and more Tennesseans are doing that every day," he said during a press conference.

Lee added that the state health department is working to provide mobile vaccine clinics and targeting populations with low uptake, especially in rural parts of the state. 

Tennessee's vaccination pace is lagging behind other areas of the country. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only 42.9 percent of adults over the age of 18 have at least one dose, compared with 54.2 percent nationwide. That puts Tennessee in the bottom three states, ahead of only Mississippi and Alabama.

"COVID-19 is part of public health, and it's here to stay for the foreseeable future," Lee said. "But we have to learn to live with it just like we do with any risk. When there's an emergency or crisis, governments should respond. When that crisis diminishes, governments should respond again and snap back."


Lee is keeping the state of emergency in place because it allows Tennessee to maintain access to federal funding. 

Throughout the pandemic, mask restrictions have been a patchwork across individual states and counties. 

At least six states — Alabama, Iowa, Mississippi, Montana, North Dakota and Texas — have lifted their mandates.

Federal health officials on Tuesday said in updated guidance that people who have been fully vaccinated don't need to wear a mask in most outdoor situations, except for large gatherings such as concerts and  sporting events. 

People who are not fully vaccinated can also go without a mask to small gatherings held outside as long as they are with fully vaccinated friends and family.

States reacted differently to the announcement. New York said it would adopt the guidelines, but Massachusetts and Maine said they would be lifting their outdoor mask requirements completely, except for when it is not possible to keep physically distant.