Tennessee officials offer stern warning as virus cases climb

By JONATHAN MATTISE Associated Press

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee issued a stern warning to the public Wednesday as Tennessee registered its highest daily increase in positive COVID-19 tests for the third time in a week and a half.

But the Republican also said he's not pursuing a statewide requirement to wear masks in public, and instead is looking into whether more cities and counties have authority to mandate masks. Nashville and Memphis, for example, have already implemented their own mask requirements. Those areas are not under the state Health Department's jurisdiction.

Other cities, like Chattanooga, have expressed interest in a mask requirement but have been blocked because the Hamilton County health department — also excluded from the health agency's oversight — has not signed off on the idea.

Health departments in the state's six larger, urban counties operate under local governance but work closely with the state Health Department.

Lee said a lot of Tennesseans are taking unnecessary risks by packing into bars or taking part in large group activities without social distancing. He noted Wednesday's record daily confirmed COVID-19 caseload of more than 1,800.

"Don't put our state two steps backward by refusing to wear a mask or refusing to social distance or refusing to pay attention to something as simple as washing your hands," Lee said.

Lee also announced an executive order to limit liability due to COVID-19 for health care providers, hospitals, nursing homes and health care workers. He said the law only allows the governor to take that action for health care providers.

Lawmakers last month failed to passed legislation with legal protections for businesses, schools and other organizations. He said he plans to call lawmakers into special session on that issue.

Later Wednesday, the Tennessee chapter of Americans for Prosperity urged Lee to call a special session to address not only COVID-19 legal immunity, but also telemedicine and medical certificate of need restriction bills that failed to advance earlier this year.

Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey said the growth in coronavirus infections is hitting both urban and rural areas.

"Please listen carefully: This is not the time to get back to normal," Piercey said. "We're all experiencing what we call quarantine fatigue. But I can guarantee you this virus is not getting tired."

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