Gov. Bill Lee

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee speaks to reporters during a news conference at the state Capitol on Thursday, Sept. 17, 2020.

(The Center Square) – Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee signed an executive order Monday allowing parents to opt children out of COVID-19 mask mandates from local schools or government agencies.

Lee declined to call for a special session of the Tennessee Legislature to address the issue. House Speaker Cameron Sexton and state’s Republican House members requested a special session.

“Our hospitals are struggling under the weight of COVID, but those hospital beds are filled with adults. Requiring parents to make their children wear masks to solve an adult problem is, in my view, the wrong approach,” Lee said Monday at a news conference.

Several school districts in Tennessee have enacted mask mandates over the past month, including Henry County Schools in Paris, Shelby County Schools in Memphis, Metro Nashville Public Schools and Williamson County Schools south of Nashville.

“Gov. Lee’s executive order issued today is good news in affirming a parent’s right to make healthcare decisions for their children,” Sexton said. “I am hopeful this order can be extended further by curtailing the power of the six independent health departments that can still impose unlimited mandates upon our business community. I feel confident the immediate need for a special session has been averted in the interim by using executive orders. However, the House still stands ready to act if the call comes.”

Lee said “we don’t want them to go back to virtual learning” but decisions should remain local but, most importantly, in the hands of parents.

“The most important tool for us to fight the pandemic are the vaccines,” Lee said. “… The government will not mandate or require anyone to get the vaccine, but I encourage you to consider it for yourself. It’s widely available, it’s effective and it’s free.”

Democrats in the General Assembly were critical of the governor's executive order and messaging. 

“[Lee is] willing to play Russian Roulette with our children, basically sending our babies into the lion’s den with no armor," House Democratic Caucus Chair Vincent Dixie, D-Nashville, said in a statement.

"Today, the Governor offered no solutions or recommendations on how to protect our kids," Dixie said. "When making the announcement, he admits that masks are good in warding off COVID-19 while at the same time saying but we don’t want our kids to wear them. It’s conflicting statements. So no wonder that the average Joe is so confused on what to do. It all boils down to a serious lack of leadership by Governor Lee and the Republicans that puts all of Tennessee at risk. “

Lee said less than 0.5% of COVID-19 hospitalizations in the state are children. He said he hoped that the federal government did not attempt to overrule Tennessee on the matter of mask mandates in schools, a right Lee believed was protected by the 10th Amendment.

“Right now, some of the greatest frustration is occurring in our K-12 schools, especially around the issue of mask mandates,” Lee said. “While local decision-making is important, individual decision-making by a parent on issues regarding the health and well-being of their child is the most important.

“No one cares about the health and well-being of a child more than a parent. I am signing an executive order today that allows parents to opt their children out of a school mask mandate if either a school board or health board enacts one over a district. Districts will make the decision they believe are best for their schools, but parents will have the ultimate decision-making for their individual child’s health and well-being. I will not be calling a special session at this time.”