Updated: Mar 25
On Gov. Bill Lee’s campaign website, the first thing it states is that he’s not a politician. That he’s a cattle rancher. A businessman.
That may be one reason why children now make up nearly 40 percent of Tennessee's COVID-19 cases.
And that's a shame.
It's a shame because voters who choose business people to run government tend to expect them to solve problems more efficiently than government; to find quicker ways to enact policies that will improve their lives.
But right now, Lee, who touted his experience running his family's home services, facilities and construction company during his campaign, is failing miserably at that.
He's failing because his policies haven't made Tennessee No. 1 when it comes to, say, jobs, or any of the plusses that one would think a business owner would bring to government.
His policies have contributed to Volunteer State recently garnering No. 1 in new COVID-19 infections.
Children comprise many of those new cases. But by issuing an executive order allowing parents to ignore school mask mandates with the thin reed of a justification that parents always know best, and by governing in a way that can lead many children to compete for space in Tennessee hospitals’ intensive care units instead of for scholarships or in sports, Lee is an example of a fallacy that many voters unfortunately buy into.
A federal judge issued an order late Friday that temporarily blocks Lee's mask opt-out order until Sept. 17. That means that in Shelby County, children must wear masks in school.
Lee's fallacy is that businesspeople are more suited to operate governments.
Most of the time, that's not the case -- especially since running a government requires a person to make more complex decisions, and to be accountable to people who aren't part of their regular customer base -- than running a small family business.
Right now, Lee's inexperience in that area is showing.
"Unfortunately, many business leaders are ill-prepared to deal with the challenges brought about by the pandemic," said D. Christopher Hayes, professor of management at the George Washington University School of Business in Washington, D.C. "The facts associated with the pandemic are changing quickly, and policies need to change accordingly...
"Because business leaders, like Lee, are relying on what they learned from business, they tend to take an all or none approach to crises like the pandemic and often fail to see how their decisions impact different communities."
Lee isn't just failing to see how pandering to anti-maskers is impacting others. He's purposely closing his eyes to it.
He's closing his eyes to the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who recommend masks for schoolchildren - especially because children younger than 12 can’t be vaccinated.
He closed his eyes to the doctors who recently tried to deliver a letter to him at the state Capitol with 6,300 signatures urging him to eliminate mask opt-outs.
In fact, he walked away from them.
And Lee continues to close his eyes to evidence which shows that if children are allowed to attend school without a mask, many of them will get sick – and some will die.
Lee's obstinance about the dangers unmasked schoolchildren pose to their classmates reflect an approach to governing that led to the water crisis in Flint, Michigan; an all-or-none approach that torpedoed the public good, Hayes said.
Michigan's former governor, Rick Snyder, who was a venture capitalist before he was elected governor, now faces criminal charges for neglect, among other things, for allowing his agencies to connect Flint’s water system to the Flint River in 2014 in a quest for cheaper water.
But the water wasn’t properly treated, and lead from corroded pipes leaked into it. That elevated lead levels in
children and exposed more than 100,000 Flint residents to dangerous levels of lead.
The problem was so horrendous that President Obama declared it an emergency in January 2016.
But Flint residents’ bodies are now filled with lead because Snyder’s people were focused on saving money.
And pediatric ICU units in this state may well fill up because Lee is more focused on keeping children in school in-person, and in pleasing anti-maskers, and his GOP colleagues, than on their lives.
Lee is also facing a federal lawsuit from two parents who say that his executive order allowing parents to opt out of Shelby County schools’ mask mandate poses a threat to their children’s health.
They say the order violates the Americans With Disabilities Act, among other things, and puts their disabled and immunocompromised children at risk for contracting COVID-19. The Shelby County government is also suing Lee over the opt-out order.
“By doubling down on the mask opt out policy and in school only policy is a surprising decision really,” Hayes said, “because if children continue to become ill, his policies will inevitably become the target of blame.”
Then again, they may not.
Many people will still buy into the notion that government should be run like a business; that it should be transactional, not transformative.
One way to dissolve that notion is to continue to educate people about what it means to govern, said Eric Groenendyk, associate professor of political science at the University of Memphis.
“Many aren't getting any real instruction on what government really is," said Groenendyk, who is currently working on a research project examining the relationship between politics and the markets.
”We make this analogy between government and the market, but, really, government is the antithesis of business," he said. "The whole point of government is that it’s a social contract. Businesses serve lots of purposes, but there are times when we need to cooperate.”
This would be one of those times.
On one level, it’s hard to see how Lee’s stance on school mask opt-outs – one that he says he doesn’t plan to change – boosts his goal to prevent learning loss.
Already, COVID-19 outbreaks are forcing many of the state’s schools to shut down for various periods – meaning that the learning is lost anyway. In Shelby County, nearly 3,000 school-age children have tested positive for COVID-19 - which means they will have to quarantine.
That situation will likely persist if unmasked children are allowed in schools.
But, in the meantime, as COVID-19 infected children fill the state’s emergency rooms and pediatric ICUs, and as Tennessee leads the U.S. in new coronavirus cases, remember that part of this problem comes from a businessman guided not only by ideology, but by inexperience, or rather, indifference, on how government is supposed to work.
An indifference that can lead to a body count.