NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The White House quietly told Tennessee early this week that “a statewide mask mandate must be implemented” to curb its growing spread of COVID-19, strong instructions that the White House and governor did not discuss publicly before the report emerged in a records request.
The Oct. 11 state report for Tennessee, where Republican Gov. Bill Lee has let counties decide whether to require masks in public, first came to light in a records request by WUOT-FM. The Associated Press obtained the report from the Knox County Health Department afterward.
“A statewide mask mandate must be implemented to stop the increasing spread among residents in rural and urban areas of Tennessee,” the item in a list of recommendations states.
President Donald Trump has repeatedly said he was not in favor of mask mandates, but the recommendations of the task force and public health agencies, like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, have often been at odds with the White House’s rhetoric.
The report takes the strongest tone to date in urging Tennessee to act, though Lee has made it clear for months that he did not think masks should be required across the state. Lee, who has urged people to wear masks, continued to advise against a statewide mandate Friday in an online news conference, in which he didn’t mention the White House’s instruction a few days earlier.
“Statewide, one-size-fits-all mandates are not as effective in many cases as local decision making,” Lee said.
In a statement late Friday, the governor’s office said the White House report had not altered his thinking.
“The governor has strongly encouraged Tennesseans to make responsible decisions to protect themselves and others from COVID-19, including wearing masks in public, avoiding large gatherings, and staying home when sick,” the statement said. “The governor’s view has not changed based upon non-binding recommendations from the federal government. Previous White House reports dating back to the summer have included similar recommendations, so the inclusion here is not novel.”
Earlier in the week, the governor and his health commissioner downplayed the importance of releasing those White House “red zone” reports. They aren’t regularly released publicly, but the governor’s office has produced them when requested by The Associated Press.
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