Deborah Birx in Nashville on Monday


White House coronavirus response coordinator Deborah Birx had a message for Gov. Bill Lee during a Monday visit to Tennessee: “Close your bars.”

Lee’s response: Thanks but no thanks.

Birx warned that Tennessee had dipped into the White House’s “red zone” of states with test positivity rates greater than 10 percent and that it was necessary to mandate mask wearing statewide and close bars in order to stem the spread.

Lee has given county mayors the authority to issue mask mandates, and so far about two-thirds have, but he has not issued a statewide mandate himself. He continued to maintain that position Monday. 

“It is this very moment where we can change the trajectory of the epidemic before it goes into full logarithmic spread,” Birx said at a press conference with Lee in Nashville.

“We've found that if you all wear masks, all Tennesseans in every public area, and you protect the individuals with comorbidities, and you stop going to bars and indeed close the bars, and limit your indoor dining, and social distance and wash your hands, we can have as big an impact on decreasing new cases as what we had with sheltering in place.”

Asked about Birx’s call for closing bars, Lee was steadfast. 

“That’s not a plan for us now,” he said. “We’re not going to close the economy back down. … I appreciate their recommendations, and we take them seriously.”

Birx pointed out that Nashville has seen a stabilization of case growth now after Mayor John Cooper, who also met with Birx on Monday, ordered residents to wear masks and bars to close. With Metro’s own health department, officials have the latitude to issue orders — like those closing bars — unavailable to county leaders outside of the six counties with their own health departments.

With hospital capacity dropping and active cases rising, hundreds of thousands of Tennessee students are preparing to return to classrooms across the state. (Williamson County Schools will do virtual learning for grades 3-12 to start the year Aug. 7, while K-2 will meet in person.) The governor is expected to announce his plan for a safe return to school on Tuesday. 

“Tennessee is at that inflection point,” Birx said.

This post originally appeared in our sister publication, the Nashville Post

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