The state of Tennessee is ending its coronavirus pandemic public health orders and lifting its mask mandates, moving toward a full return to the pre-pandemic normal as state residents are vaccinated against COVID-19.
Gov. Bill Lee (R) announced the return to normal Tuesday, signing an executive order that removes the local authority for county mayors in 85 of the state's 95 counties to require face coverings. The governor has requested that the remaining counties with independent health departments lift their business restrictions and mask requirements by no later than May 30.
"COVID-19 is now a managed public health issue in Tennessee and no longer a statewide public health emergency," Lee said in a statement. "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."
In an interview on Fox News Wednesday, the governor said the availability of COVID-19 vaccines means people are protected from the virus and should start living like it.
"It's time for us to move on. I think we don't have a crisis anymore. It's a new season and we need to make steps toward that new season. We need to actually start living in that new season," Lee said.
"If you have a vaccine or you've had access to a vaccine and you've had the opportunity to be vaccinated then we should not be requiring people to wear masks anymore. If you've been vaccinated you're safe, you're protected," he added.
According to the New York Times' vaccine tracker, more than 3.8 million vaccine shots have been delivered in Tennessee. About 23% of the state's population is fully vaccinated with both doses and 34% have received their first shot. The state has used up about 72% of its supply of vaccines received from the federal government.
Lee acknowledged that the state has seen some hesitancy among its residents to receive the vaccine but emphasized that availability of the vaccine means people are protected from the virus if they want to be and should be encouraged to return to normal.
"We've had a slowdown as most states have seen. But for a month now every Tennessean 16 and over has been eligible, and we have walk-up vaccine availability everywhere. So where we are is that people have had access to this protection — you know that's what masks are, they're protection — but now we have vaccine as protection, vaccine changes everything," Lee told Fox News.
"So we need to change everything as well," he continued. "We need to move forward, so I've asked our city mayors in the remaining places in Tennessee that have a mask mandate and any limited business restrictions to remove those restrictions by Memorial Day."
"We need to have concerts and conventions and parties and proms," said Lee.
"Tennessee is wide open. We're open for moving forward and open for business. What we need to do now is just finish the mask mandates and we think that's coming off soon."