Gov. Bill Lee is doubling down on his decision not to issue a statewide mask mandate, despite rising COVID-19 cases throughout the state. 

During a call with local newspapers on Tuesday (Dec. 22), Lee pleaded for Tennesseans to wear masks, but said making it a mandate isn’t part of his strategy. 

Gov. Bill Lee: “We are in a particularly challenging season right now. … We are seeing the worst surge Tennessee has had throughout this pandemic.” (Twitter screen capture(

“I believe that the state government is not the most trusted source of information for personal decisions that residents have to make in their lives,” Lee said. “I believe it’s local government.”

At least 70 percent of Tennessee residents, Lee said, are under a mask mandate without state government imposing. The data comes from a November Vanderbilt University School of Medicine study that reflects about 69 percent of Tennesseans facing a mask requirement. Researchers have noted that the percentage has dropped since the study was conducted.

“We have a strong uptake of masks in this state,” Lee said. “And we know that there will be people who won’t wear a mask despite there being a mandate or requirement. I want to speak to those people and ask them to consider wearing a mask.”

Although Lee has refrained from mandating masks, he did issue an executive order limiting indoor social gatherings to no more than 10 people, excluding homes and churches. He made that announcement Sunday during a six-minute speech from the Governor’s mansion, just one day after revealing that his wife, Maria, had tested positive for the virus. The executive order will last 30 days.

“We are in a particularly challenging season right now,” Lee said Tuesday. “We are seeing the worst surge Tennessee has had throughout this pandemic.”

Tennessee Health Commissioner Dr. Lisa Piercey said active cases grew by two-thirds just over the last week. She expressed concern that a further surge over the holidays “will completely break our hospitals.”

Tennessee has been one of the top U.S. states with the highest rate of new COVID-19 cases over the past week, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

As of Tuesday, the total COVID-19 case count for Tennessee was 534,019, including 6,269 deaths. In Shelby County, the numbers continue to surge, with more than 62,000 cases reported, including 821 deaths as of Tuesday. 

To curb the spread, the Shelby County Health Department recently issued a new health directive, adding restrictions to restaurants and indoor gatherings. Both the Shelby County Commission and the Memphis City Council have signed resolutions in support of the SCHD.

Statewide, Lee said officials are making progress in combating the virus by opening more COVID-specific nursing homes, funding hospitals with staffing assistance, and imploring medics from the U.S. National Guard. 

Additionally, Lee touted the progress in vaccination distribution within the state. So far, 20,000 vaccines have been distributed to mostly frontline workers. Lee said the state is on track to vaccinate more than 200,000 Tennesseans by the end of the year. 

Meanwhile, a group of Democratic Tennessee lawmakers are criticizing Lee’s refusal to require all residents to wear masks, calling his latest executive order an executive suggestion.” 

During a virtual news conference on Monday, State Rep. London Lamar (D- Memphis) said, “Lee made this a political issue when he decided not to implement a mask mandate and further our ability to kill more Tennesseans by not putting in his mandate and forcing us to protect one another.”

Higher rates of COVID-19 deaths and hospitalizations are found in areas that don’t require masks, according to a Vanderbilt study.

Still, Lee said the decision lies solely up to local leaders, and he’s confident that their decisions will encourage more resident participation. 

He continued to emphasize just how “critical” the next few weeks will be for Tennesseans; but has no plans of issuing a stay-at-home order.

“We all realize that shutting down our economy was not good for the state or the country,” Lee said, referring to the stay-at-home order he issued earlier this year.

Confident in the state’s progress in learning to “treat people and save lives,” Lee said, “More importantly, we know we can see the light at the end of the tunnel now. …We just have to get through this very critical period.”