MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Governor Bill Lee is trying to move the state into a new era, as he declares COVID-19 is no longer a statewide public health emergency for Tennessee.
He wants to see all mask mandates in the state gone by Memorial Day, but leaders in Shelby County aren’t hinting at that happening.
Lee’s latest executive order ends local authority for counties operating under the state health department to make their own mask mandates. That does not include Shelby County and the six other metro health departments, but the governor is requesting any current mandates in those counties to be gone by the end of May.
“It’s time for government to get out of the business of public health interventions,” Lee said.
Lee considers the COVID-19 cases manageable, and with vaccines available to all of age residents, he wants to see mask mandates and business restrictions gone by Memorial Day. Executive Order 80 does not allow the 89 counties under the state health department to make their own mask mandates. As for the six other counties, Lee has been appealing directly to those county leaders.
“Three of these counties have mask mandates and some level of business restrictions,” Lee said. “Each of these counties are moving in the right direction and I’ve spoken with each one of these counties over the last day.”
Shelby County and the City of Memphis have mask directives and ordinances, and while the current Shelby County Health Directive is loosening business restrictions, it still restricts things like party sizes at restaurants.
Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris did not say whether the county would get rid of its mask directive by Memorial Day but released a statement saying:
“We are pleased that our numbers have been relatively stable for several weeks, and more importantly, almost every resident now has access to the vaccine. That’s why we made the announcement two weeks ago that we would likely shift away from economic restrictions altogether in the next health directive. Because of our numbers and vaccine availability, we continue to be on track.”
However, earlier on Tuesday, Harris tweeted:
“Although some of the worst aspects of COVID may have receded, we expect we will have to continue the course for just a while longer. Gen. Douglas MacArthur once said, ‘In war there is no substitute for victory.’ We plan to continue the COVID response until the virus is defeated.”
A spokesperson for Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland said he has not spoken directly to the governor.
“The governor would have reached out to Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris to talk about mask mandates. However, this appears to be a request from the governor, and if more people get vaccinated in the next few weeks, it will be easier to lift mask mandates,” the statement continued.
“At this point, I guess we’re in an evaluation phase of all this,” said David Sweat, Shelby County Health Department Deputy Director.
The Shelby County Health Department said COVID-19 cases have not peaked to fourth-wave levels, but the reproduction rate remains over one, which means the pandemic is growing. The department said it’s using thoughtful consideration following the governor’s request.
“Remember a year ago it was masking that got us out of the summer surge, so masks are very important,” Sweat said.
Tuesday morning following Lee’s request, the City of Memphis’ legal team got to work evaluating its current mask ordinance.
“What impacts the governor’s request, should there be changes to the Shelby County health order, what impacts that has to the City of Memphis’ mask ordinance,” said City of Memphis COO Doug McGowen.
McGowen said one thing should be leading this conversation.
“We need more people to be vaccinated before we even begin to have that conversation,” McGowen said.
For weeks we’ve seen the demand in Shelby County for the COVID-19 vaccine fall. It’s the same across most of Tennessee. The Tennessee Department of Health says market research shows vaccine hesitancy is coming from things like lack of trust in the government and fear of side effects.
“Really, the last two weeks are the first two weeks that our providers have not requested the full allocation,” said Tennessee Health Commissioner Dr. Lisa Piercey. “Last week, there was less than 20 percent of the allocation requested from providers.”
Next month, the Tennessee Department of Health will start a vaccine PSA campaign. Piercey said even if no mandate is in place, she still recommends wearing a mask indoors when you’re around a lot of people who possibly are not vaccinated.
“Just because the requirement goes away doesn’t mean the masks will go away forever and ever,” said Piercey. “People can still wear masks if they feel uncomfortable.”