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Tennessee governor limits gatherings, resists mask mandate

December 21, 2020 GMT
File-This Nov. 10, 2020, file photo shows Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee speaks with reporters in Nashville, Tenn. Lee has tweeted that his wife has mild symptoms of COVID-19 after testing positive for the coronavirus. The Republican governor said Saturday, Dec. 19, 2020, that he has tested negative for the virus but will be quarantined at the Governor’s Residence out of an abundance of caution. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey, File)
File-This Nov. 10, 2020, file photo shows Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee speaks with reporters in Nashville, Tenn. Lee has tweeted that his wife has mild symptoms of COVID-19 after testing positive for the coronavirus. The Republican governor said Saturday, Dec. 19, 2020, that he has tested negative for the virus but will be quarantined at the Governor’s Residence out of an abundance of caution. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey, File)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee on Sunday announced new social gathering restrictions while still refusing to implement a mask mandate despite pleas from front-line health care workers in a state experiencing the highest new cases per capita in the country.

“Many people think that a statewide mask mandate would improve mask wearing. Many think it would have the opposite effect. This has been a heavily politicized issue, please do not get caught up in that,” Lee said during a rare statewide address that lasted just over five minutes.

The Republican called the state “ground zero” in the COVID-19 battle and urged Tennesseans not to gather with people outside their immediate households during the upcoming holidays.

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Yet instead of a mask mandate, Lee signed an executive order limiting public gatherings to 10 people. However, places of worship, weddings and funerals are exempt from the order.

His message comes just a day after Lee confirmed that his wife Maria had tested positive for COVID-19. Lee said he has tested negative but will remain in quarantine at the governor’s residence.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. But for others, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, the highly contagious virus can cause severe symptoms and be fatal.

Tennessee is one of a dozen states without a mask mandate. Instead, local counties have the option of implementing their own mask restrictions. The White House has repeatedly recommended Tennessee adopt such statewide mandates as cases skyrocket.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has long advised people to wear masks because they help prevent people who are infected — whether they know it or not — from spreading the coronavirus.

“Tonight, I am asking you to make some hard decisions,” Lee said. “I am asking you to not engage in indoor gatherings for the holidays that include anyone outside your household.”

Lee was originally scheduled to take reporter questions after his statewide address, but his office later postponed that until Monday without giving a reason why.

Lee’s continued reluctance to avoid issuing a statewide mask mandate and other restrictions to help curb the spread of the disease has frustrated Democratic leaders and medical workers. Some Democratic lawmakers on social media called for the governor to resign, while health care staffers once again asked Lee to listen to the workers who have been battling the virus first-hand.

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“Tennessee needs a statewide mask mandate, and other interventions, to get COVID under control so that Tennesseans can safely stay at work, provide for their families, and keep their kids in school — and most importantly, to save lives,” said Dr. Aaron Milstone, a critical care pulmonologist currently treating COVID-19 patients. “Gov. Lee, we still need you to do your part.”

Meanwhile, earlier Sunday, Tennessee’s Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey issued a strong warning that the state’s hospitals were reaching a breaking point and staffing was becoming increasingly more difficult. She pleaded with the public not to gather with others outside of their immediate households.

“If we have another surge after Christmas and New Year’s like we did after Thanksgiving, it will completely break our hospitals,” Piercey told reporters.

According to Piercey, two hospitals have had to ask the state for help in securing emergency ventilators in the past week. Meanwhile, National Guard medical personnel are helping staff a handful of hospitals to help handle the spike in coronavirus patients. And a state board just recently approved allowing COVID-19 positive staff continue working at long-term care facilities — an option not available for hospitals.

There were roughly 1,567 new cases per 100,000 people in Tennessee over the past two weeks, which ranks first in the country for new cases per capita, according to researchers with Johns Hopkins. One in every 112 people in Tennessee tested positive in the past week.

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Follow AP coverage of the virus outbreak at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak.