Calling COVID-19 a “managed public health issue in Tennessee,” Gov. Bill Lee on Tuesday ended statewide public health orders put in place over the past year and made other changes that limit local response to the virus.
“As Tennesseans continue to get vaccinated, it’s time to lift remaining local restrictions, focus on economic recovery and get back to business in Tennessee,” Lee said in a statement.
Active case counts have plummeted since the December-January surge. The statewide two-week average of active cases is a little more than 13,000 – a level not seen since July 2020. Reported hospitalizations were 687 Tuesday, far lower than the peak of 2,457 on January 6.
However, only one in four Tennesseans is considered fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, according to the state health department. Thirty-four percent of Tennesseans have received at least partial protection from the initial doses of Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. The state’s current immunization rate as a function of population is the third-lowest in America.
Those rates may improve now that federal and state officials have lifted a temporary suspension of Johnson and Johnson vaccine distribution. But health officials have also noted demand for available vaccines is cooling, particularly in rural areas. The Tennessee Department of Health hopes to use the results of a recent survey to encourage rural residents to get vaccinated.
Lee’s Executive Order 80 will allow local health departments to offer walk-in options for any person 16 or older who wants to get immunized. Previously, many health departments relied on an appointment system. Appointments will still be offered, the governor’s office said.
Lifting remaining restrictions is “about trusting Tennesseans, using the tools we have at our disposal to move on from crisis management and back to life and back to business,” Lee said on Twitter. “Tennessee is moving forward thanks to her people.”
The executive order removes the authority of local officials in 89 counties to issue mask mandates. The remaining six counties have independent health departments and have more leeway to manage the local situation, but Lee is asking all six departments to end any regulations, including business restrictions and mask mandates, by May 30. Knox County’s restaurant capacity restrictions ended last week. Mayor Glenn Jacobs moved to dispense with the county's mask mandate within hours of Lee's announcement; it effectively ended just before midnight. There are questions about whether Jacobs had the authority to end the mandate on his own.
Lee’s order also ended the state’s “Tennessee Pledge” guidelines, which were issued last year to help businesses and other organizations voluntarily set their own COVID safety measures. The state’s official Tennessee Pledge website was removed by Tuesday afternoon.
This story was updated Wednesday, April 28, to reflect changes to Knox County's mask policy.