Dr. Briggs said the governor is trying to cater to rural voters who have become increasingly hostile to health measures like masks and vaccines as a result of “the misinformation and disinformation” that they hear in conservative media.
“He’s trying to walk this tightrope between doing what he knows would mitigate the effects of the disease, versus the political reality that it may be hard to win an election because of this radical group,” Dr. Briggs said.
Understand Vaccine and Mask Mandates in the U.S.
- Vaccine rules. On Aug. 23, the Food and Drug Administration granted full approval to Pfizer-BioNTech’s coronavirus vaccine for people 16 and up, paving the way for an increase in mandates in both the public and private sectors. Private companies have been increasingly mandating vaccines for employees. Such mandates are legally allowed and have been upheld in court challenges.
- Mask rules. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in July recommended that all Americans, regardless of vaccination status, wear masks in indoor public places within areas experiencing outbreaks, a reversal of the guidance it offered in May. See where the C.D.C. guidance would apply, and where states have instituted their own mask policies. The battle over masks has become contentious in some states, with some local leaders defying state bans.
- College and universities. More than 400 colleges and universities are requiring students to be vaccinated against Covid-19. Almost all are in states that voted for President Biden.
- Schools. Both California and New York City have introduced vaccine mandates for education staff. A survey released in August found that many American parents of school-age children are opposed to mandated vaccines for students, but were more supportive of mask mandates for students, teachers and staff members who do not have their shots.
- Hospitals and medical centers. Many hospitals and major health systems are requiring employees to get a Covid-19 vaccine, citing rising caseloads fueled by the Delta variant and stubbornly low vaccination rates in their communities, even within their work force.
- New York City. Proof of vaccination is required of workers and customers for indoor dining, gyms, performances and other indoor situations, although enforcement does not begin until Sept. 13. Teachers and other education workers in the city’s vast school system will need to have at least one vaccine dose by Sept. 27, without the option of weekly testing. City hospital workers must also get a vaccine or be subjected to weekly testing. Similar rules are in place for New York State employees.
- At the federal level. The Pentagon announced that it would seek to make coronavirus vaccinations mandatory for the country’s 1.3 million active-duty troops “no later” than the middle of September. President Biden announced that all civilian federal employees would have to be vaccinated against the coronavirus or submit to regular testing, social distancing, mask requirements and restrictions on most travel.
Any hint of a mandate could alienate the governor’s political base, prompt the legislature to defy him and perhaps draw a strong primary challenge, which Mr. Geer said was “the only way he would not be re-elected.”
Mr. Lee signed an executive order last month that gutted local officials’ efforts to require masks in schools, a precaution that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends. Opponents fought the order in court, and a federal judge ruled in their favor on Friday, blocking the governor’s order from taking effect in Shelby County, which includes Memphis.
Bill Christian, a spokesman for the state’s department of health, said in an email that a study in the spring of 2021 had identified specific populations in Tennessee that were plagued by vaccine hesitancy, and that the department was running ads to try to reach unvaccinated people.
“We continue to see vaccination rate increases in each age group,” Mr. Christian said.
Tennessee has been here before. Last December, before vaccines were widely available, the state had the nation’s highest rate of new cases per capita and a high number of deaths. Then, too, Mr. Lee argued against statewide mask requirements.
“This is the byproduct of a long and frustrating battle with politics instead of professional health care,” said Larsen Jay, a Knox County Commissioner, who in March was the sole Republican to vote against stripping the local health board of regulatory authority. Its powers were transferred largely to the county mayor, who has refused to issue any new pandemic restrictions.
“We have really competent and capable medical professionals that have given us the tools and a road map to end this pandemic,” Mr. Jay said. “But somehow we’ve given rise to people who research things on the internet and weigh that against people with 40 years of medical credentials.”
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