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Each Monday, Tommy Tomlinson delivers thoughtful commentary on an important topic in the news. Through these perspectives, he seeks to find common ground that leads to deeper understanding of complex issues and that helps people relate to what others are feeling, even if they don’t agree.

Tennessee And North Carolina — Side By Side But Diverging On COVID

I’m sending in this dispatch from the road — from Tennessee, to be exact. It’s one of my favorite states. I’ve got family here. Tennessee has given the world Mayfield ice cream and Stax Records and the American legend Dolly Parton, whose picture ought to be on our money.


But the news out of Tennessee when it comes to COVID-19 almost makes me want to turn the car around and head back home. Because North Carolina right now is a safer place to be.

Here are the numbers. According to NPR’s COVID tracker, Tennessee had a daily average of nearly 7,200 new cases last week — that’s 105 cases per 100,000 residents. North Carolina had a daily average of a little more than 6,500 cases — still a lot, but only 62 per 100,000 residents.

North Carolina is a way bigger state — 10 and a half million to Tennessee’s 6.8 million. But when it comes to total cases and deaths, they’re almost equal.

There are a lot of factors as to why one place might get hit with COVID worse than another. But one clear difference is how the governors of the two states treated the threat of the virus.

In Tennessee, Gov. Bill Lee signed an executive order back in April that banned local authorities from requiring masks. There’s a weird little quirk here, in that six of Tennessee’s 95 counties aren’t covered by the state’s public health rules. So Shelby County, where Memphis is located, has its own mask mandate that the governor can’t touch. But the vast majority of Tennessee local governments couldn’t require masks if they wanted to.

In North Carolina, Gov. Roy Cooper had a statewide mask mandate that ran through mid-May, and even now, masks are still required in many places statewide. That, of course, comes with its own political pressure. Some places, including Union County, have fought Cooper’s requirement for masks in schools. But other local governments, like Charlotte and Mecklenburg County, have set their own mask mandates that build upon the state’s.

On this short trip to Tennessee, a couple of things are clear. One, nobody knows what to say about masks. The hotel where I’m staying has a sign on its door that almost apologizes for asking unvaccinated people to wear a mask. And two, best I can tell, almost no one wears one anyway.

And the result is that people are getting sick and dying at a higher rate here than back home in North Carolina.

I like that states have different personalities. You can legally bet on sports in Tennessee now — I didn’t know that until I saw 10,000 billboards for it when I crossed the state line. Tennessee has always felt looser than North Carolina, not quite so buttoned-up. There’s nothing in our state like Beale Street.

But there’s always a line between freedom and responsibility. And when there’s tension between those two things, leadership matters. North Carolina is walking a more responsible line right now. The line Tennessee is walking heads straight to the hospital.

Tommy Tomlinson’s On My Mind column runs Mondays on WFAE and WFAE.org. It represents his opinion, not the opinion of WFAE. You can respond to this column in the comments section below. You can also email Tommy at ttomlinson@wfae.org.

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