Governors stress 'personal responsibility' over virus orders

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Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee removes his mask as he begins a news conference Wednesday, July 1, 2020, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Earlier this week, as Tennessee registered what then was its highest single-day coronavirus case increase, Gov. Bill Lee held a news conference and issued a stern response.

It wasn't a mandate to wear masks in public or clamp down on businesses or social gatherings. Instead, it was a plea for residents to do the right thing.

“When we have people dying in this state as a result of this virus, we should be taking personal responsibility for this,” the Republican governor said.

It was the same message Lee issued in late March as the COVID-19 disease was beginning to spread. He has vowed to stick to the personal responsibility mantra, with no plans to reinstate stay-at-home restrictions or impose statewide mandates — even as photos of unmasked people crowding bars and outdoor concerts across Tennessee spread across social media.

Instead, Lee signed an executive order Friday that allows local officials to issue their own mask mandates if they want — as Nashville and Memphis had already done.

Elevating a message of personal responsibility over statewide crackdowns on businesses and requirements for people in public spaces has been a consistent approach among certain governors during the coronavirus crisis. That's especially true in Republican-leaning states that had relatively few cases in the initial months of the outbreak but have begun to spike in recent weeks.

Governors in Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Montana, South Carolina, South Dakota and Utah also have invoked some form of the “personal responsibility” message over issuing strict statewide mandates.

“You shouldn’t have to order somebody to do what is just in your own best interest and that of your family, friends and neighbors,” Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, a Republican, said earlier this week as she urged people to wear masks and take other precautions but downplayed the effectiveness of statewide orders.