Gov. Bill Lee: “Politics, as we have seen over the last several weeks, has failed us, but principled leadership is failsafe and that’s what we want to do going forward.” (File photo)

Giving a COVID-19 update, Gov. Bill Lee on Wednesday told The New Tri-State Defender and other members of the Tennessee Press Association that he has “a great deal of hope,” linking that optimism to an awaited vaccine.

Tennessee is one of four states chosen to participate in a Pfizer vaccine pilot program, with a COVID-19 vaccine set to be released in December. Healthcare workers will be first on the list to receive the vaccine, followed by first responders and then those in long-term living facilities.

“We are in a very crucial time in our country and in our state,” Lee said during the call Wednesday.

“At the end of the day, Tennesseans will ultimately and eventually make the difference because it’s the individual choices that we all make over the next couple of months before we have a vaccine completely deployed that will continue to mitigate the spread of this virus…”

Tennesseans were encouraged to be “diligent and vigilant” to protect themselves and their neighbors. The state could receive its first doses of COVID-19 vaccines as soon as Dec. 15; but vaccines won’t be widely available to residents until early summer, state officials said Tuesday.

Meanwhile, cases and deaths related to COVID-19 continue to surge. More than 320,000 cases have been confirmed throughout the state, resulting in 4,466 total deaths, according to the Tennessee Health Department.

In Shelby County, the virus has claimed the lives of more than 600 people.

Against the sobering backdrop of the bleak numbers, Lee said, “I have a great deal of hope. I am deeply grateful for the incredible work that’s being done across the state…”

Because the vaccine is initially available to only a limited population, some have questioned why Lee has not enforced a statewide mask mandate. Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris, Bartlett Mayor Keith McDonald and Germantown Mayor Mike Palazzolo are among those who have called for Lee to issue the directive throughout Tennessee.

The governor has made it clear that he has no plans of enforcing one anytime soon.

“I believe that we need to develop a strategy in our state that creates the best adherence to mask wearing. …And I actually believe that government closest to the people is the best kind of government to make those decisions,” he said.

In an effort to curb the growing number of cases, the Shelby County Health Department recently issued a new health directive for restaurants. It included a return to 50 percent occupancy and 10 p.m. closure for all full- and limited-service restaurants.

Amid pushback from the The Memphis Restaurant Association, Health Department Director Alisa Haushalter earlier this week said, “We understand the economic impact.

“What we attempted to do was implement the least restrictive measures possible. …The option was to close completely or close indoor services. We compromised on that, thinking we could take some less-restrictive measures.”

While holding firm on not declaring a state mandate to wear masks, Lee said, “Masks are a part of what we need to do to fight this. …They are a pretty non-intrusive way as opposed to closing businesses or mandating restrictions.

“They are a helpful way and tool that every Tennessean can do to help keep our businesses open and schools open.”

The Shelby County Schools district continues to keep its buildings closed to in-class instruction, but that isn’t the case for all schools statewide.

Earlier this month, Tennessee Education Association (TEA) President Beth Brown told Lee and Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn in a letter that COVID-19 infection rates among Tennessee educators is consistently higher than rates of the communities they serve. The TEA, the state’s largest teacher union, also has called on Lee to issue a statewide mask mandate for all school staff and students.

During Wednesday’s call, Lee stood firm on his position of students being in school for in-person instruction.

“It’s really important the kids are in-person back in school,” Lee said. “We look at what we believe is working and that’s the strategy that we will implement. And what we’re doing is working with regards to our schools, so that’s the course that we’re going to stay on.”

In the case of schools, that means no statewide mask mandate, with Lee again emphasizing that the decisions should come from local government, not state enforcement.

“That’s my strategy,” he said, “and I’m encouraged on how it’s working.”