Tennessee Governor Bill Lee announced on Sunday evening that he signed an executive order limiting public gatherings to a maximum of ten people, with some exceptions. He made the announcement during a statewide address.

Governor Lee’s executive order went into effect at 11:59 p.m. Sunday and remains in place until Jan. 19. There are some exceptions – places of worship or for weddings or funerals. There is not a statewide face mask mandate and that didn’t change in this executive order, though many expected he would order that, too. Some counties have mask mandates in place. Instead, he asked Tennesseans to wear a face mask and not get caught up in the politics that some wish to inflict on the issue. He noted that opinions are split on whether or not a face mask mandate would work. “Masks work. And I want every Tennessee to wear one.” About 70% of Tennesseans live in areas with a mask mandate in place by local authorities while 80% say they wear a mask most or all of the time.

Lee announced a new 10-person public gathering restriction in a live video address Sunday night. He also urged Tennesseans to gather with people only within their household for Christmas and asked employers to allow employees to work from home for the next 30 days. The gathering restrictions, enacted by an executive order expiring Jan. 19, will not apply to at-home events or churches.

“We tried to be as targeted and specific to what we think the actual problem is and not go beyond that,” Lee said on a call with Republican members of the General Assembly ahead of the speech.

Lee points to the spike in coronavirus cases after the Thanksgiving holiday. He is concerned about hospital resources being overwhelmed. The governor’s wife Maria tested positive for the coronavirus on Saturday and is experiencing mild symptoms. The governor and first lady are in quarantine.

Tennessee has the highest average of daily cases per 100,000 people in the past seven days, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The state surpassed more than 6,000 COVID-19 deaths over the weekend. The Tennessee Department of Health (TDOH) reported the percent of positive tests Saturday was a record 30.46%.

TDOH officials announced earlier Sunday that a Christmas surge of COVID-19 cases could “break” the state’s hospital system.

“We want to preserve access to hospital resources,” Health Commissioner Dr. Lisa Piercey said. “If we have another surge over Christmas, it will break our hospitals. Don’t gather with those outside of your households. We have to change our behavior over the next several weeks.”

The state has deployed National Guard medical staff to northeast Tennessee and Shelby County to work in hospitals because of staff shortages.

“We are running out of options,” Piercey said. “All of the money in the world can’t buy more staff. That money will only go so far. We have spent all the money we can spend on staff. There are no more staff to spend money on.”

Tennessee health officials say that the state has the highest infection rate of any state in the country. Dr. Lisa Piercey, Tennessee Commissioner for the Department of Health, said Tennessee’s rate is 40% higher than the national average. This stretches hospitals past their limits and there are staffing issues. Some hospital equipment is in short supply. The fear expressed by health care officials is that a superspreader event could push the hospital system over the edge.

Mask mandates remain a hot button issue among doctors in Tennessee. They are expressing their disappointment that Governor Lee remains committed to allowing county officials to have the last word on face mask mandates. The medical community is keeping the pressure on Lee. He used his emergency authority last summer to allow counties to remain in control and shows no inclination to change his decision. On Dec. 13, the White House called for a statewide mask mandate. The state has spent millions of dollars on state marketing campaigns to encourage mask use. Four of the twenty counties with the highest positivity rates are under mask mandates.

Tennessee is one of the states that lifted business restrictions in late spring. Lee promised to not implement such widespread lockdowns again. Like many conservatives, he emphasizes personal responsibility instead of sweeping government control. “One thing this vaccine will not solve, or will not cure, is selfishness or indifference to our neighbors around us,” Lee said Thursday. “This vaccine will not cure foolish decisions about how we gather. It won’t cure an attitude of a refusal to wear a mask.”

Church attendance is exempted from the 10-person maximum limit. I assume this is to allow congregations to exercise their right to religious freedom. How does this square, though, with restrictions on family celebrations during the Christmas holiday? On the one hand, the governor’s order mandates that only people within households gather together but when that household goes to church for Christmas services, the potential is there for exposure from others. At some point, people have to venture out and take the risk. It’s confusing to ask families and friends to limit contact when a church service will expose people from all over the area. That’s the contradiction public officials have to measure when issuing mandates. Some of the states with the most stringent orders are still dealing with spikes in coronavirus cases – look at California.

Leaving weddings and funerals unaffected by the executive order allows the decision of the size of the gathering to be made by individuals involved. That seems best, and that is where personal responsibility comes in.