press conference

A look at coverage of Lee’s wide-ranging press conference

Gov. Bill Lee speaks at a press conference on Tennessee’s coronavirus response in Nashville on March 16, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Gov. Bill Lee held a wide-ranging press conference Thursday, with several observers coming away wondering what it was meant to accomplish. While the governor touched on issues ranging from workforce development to the worsening pandemic situation in the state, several observers came away from the gathering wondering what it was meant to accomplish. Here’s a look at how reporters covered the confab:

Stella Yu, The Tennessean:

On Thursday, Lee acknowledged the effectiveness of masks in schools and vaccination for children ages 12 and up.

“We believe that masks work, and that if you want to protect your kid against (COVID-19), one tool that you would have is to send your kid to school with a mask,” he said.

But he stopped short of committing to any additional measures, insisting he needs to balance school districts’ rights to make policy with parents’ right to make decisions for their children.

“What we are trying to do is provide for as much protection as possible and provide for the rights of parents to have the last say in their children’s health,” he said. “You don’t have to exclude. You don’t have to have ‘either or.’ If you really believe it, you can find a way forward.”

Marissa Sulek, WSMV-TV:

Thursday is the second day in a row that Tennessee has set a record for the highest amount of COVID-19 hospitalizations in the state.

The Department of Health reports 3,500 people are now in hospitals across the state with the virus, 79 are pediatric patients. The state has now exceeded the winter peak seen in January.

On Thursday, Gov. Bill Lee and other state officials spoke for the first time about the surge in hospitalizations. Lee said he’s not going to make any changes going forward with the state’s plan to combat COVID-19.

Department of Health Commissioner Dr. Lisa Piercey said there are 7,700 new positive cases of COVID-19 a day in Tennessee with one-third of those in children.

Phil Williams, WTVF-TV:

Tennessee doctors have tried holding news conferences, signing petitions, even producing personal video pleas — to get the governor’s attention on the issue of kids and COVID.

Thursday, frustrated that they have not been heard, a group of area physicians decided to confront Gov. Bill Lee directly as he left his own news conference.

“Governor Lee, we want to get a meeting with you,” one called out as Lee continued walking through the halls of the state Capitol.

She continued, “We want to know, as a Christian man, how you feel about children getting sick and dying from COVID when this could be prevented with universal masking.”

Marta Aldrich, Chalkbeat:

Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn has granted eight of 14 waiver requests from Tennessee school leaders wanting to switch temporarily to remote learning under a COVID response plan that began this week.

A spokesman for the Tennessee Department of Education said Wednesday that Schwinn also partially granted one other application and denied two, while three more requests weren’t eligible. […]

The rollout of seven-day waivers, announced late last week, is Schwinn’s attempt to give district and school leaders some flexibility on new state rules that essentially require in-person instruction this academic year, except when individual students must temporarily isolate or quarantine due to the virus.

But Gov. Bill Lee’s administration is under increasing pressure to provide even greater flexibility for virtual learning as additional districts shut down under the strain of COVID’s highly contagious delta variant. According to data from the state health department, more than 38% of all Tennessee COVID cases reported last week were among children up to age 18.

Ian Round, The Daily Memphian:

Gov. Bill Lee and cabinet members said Thursday, Sept. 2, they’re not making any major changes in their approach to the pandemic, even though Tennessee leads the nation in COVID-19 cases per capita.

“We’re in a very difficult position in our state,” Lee said during a briefing at the State Capitol in Nashville.

Lee reiterated his stance that children should continue to learn in-person and that parents should retain the right to opt their children out of mask mandates, even though 38.5% of COVID cases are among children.

“We don’t have any plan to change that going forward,” he said. “We are working really hard to protect the lives and livelihoods of those kids.

“I still believe that a parent is the best decider of what is appropriate for their child,” he said. “No one is more qualified to make decisions about the health and wellbeing of a child than the child’s parent.”

The Associated Press:

Republican Gov. Bill Lee on Thursday said he has no plans to introduce anti-abortion legislation similar to what Texas adopted earlier this year.

“We do not have any current plans to move forward beyond than what we’re currently awaiting which is a ruling from the court on the existing piece of legislation that we already have,” Lee told reporters.

Last year, Lee signed off on one of the strictest abortion bans in the country, but it was promptly blocked by federal court from being implemented. He has since vowed to do “whatever it takes in court” to defend the measure.

Sam Stockard commentary at The Tennessee Lookout:

Under a federal civil rights investigation, facing two lawsuits out of Shelby County over his mask opt-out order and now seeing school districts closing, Gov. Bill Lee refuses to let the buck stop with him.

“My responsibility is to work together to make the best decisions in our state that we believe will benefit Tennesseans as we navigate through what is a very difficult situation. To work with school districts, to work with parents, to work with people across the state, that’s what we’re doing,” Lee said Thursday in a press conference called apparently to calm people’s nerves but which did little to soothe anyone’s concerns about what the governor is calling a “crisis” again.

But what about districts that are closing because they can’t deal with COVID cases. Does he bear any responsibility for those, because of his policy?

“I think a pandemic has created a large number of infections across our state. A pandemic has swept through, and I think we see that in school districts, we see that in cases of pediatrics across our state. We see that in schools having to make difficult decisions about how to keep classrooms opened and closed. This pandemic has wreaked havoc on the world, and it’s doing the same thing in our state, and we’re doing everything we can to handle that,” he said.

Maybe he doesn’t think anyone is paying attention to his refusal to take the heat or to say things that have little meaning.