Republican governors talk COVID, economy with Sean Hannity at Nashville town hall

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NASHVILLE, Tennessee — Gov. Bill Lee, hosting other Republican politicians in Nashville this week as part of the Republican Governors Association conference, pointed to the neon lights around the corner Wednesday as an example of the country moving forward from the pandemic.

"Our model you can see out on Broadway," Lee said — referring to Nashville's popular street of bars and entertainment venues — during a town hall forum with Fox News host Sean Hannity. "It's open. Our businesses are open. People are going to restaurants. They're going to bars. They're wearing masks."

The event featuring five other GOP governors was taped live from the J.W. Marriott hotel in downtown Nashville on Wednesday night, where the RGA gathering was being held.

Gov. Bill Lee announces a new series of partnerships to fight human trafficking during a press conference at the State Capitol Thursday, May 13, 2021 in Nashville, Tenn.
Gov. Bill Lee announces a new series of partnerships to fight human trafficking during a press conference at the State Capitol Thursday, May 13, 2021 in Nashville, Tenn.

There was never a statewide mask mandate in Tennessee, and Nashville, where a mask order stayed in place longer than most other cities, lifted its mandate earlier this month.

"The health crisis is over," Lee said. "The emergency is over. We have fully opened up, and we're moving our state forward.

"The left likes to say follow the science until they don’t. You can't say follow the science and keep kids out of school. You can't say follow the science and wear a mask after you're vaccinated. You certainly can't put COVID patients back into the nursing home if you follow the science."

Just after Lee's comments, Hannity called on South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, who replied that she "never closed a single business ever."

"I didn’t believe I had the authority to tell anybody that their business was essential," Noem said.

More: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis says he'll pardon violators of local mask, distancing laws

Lee has faced criticism from a vocal faction of the far right-wing of the party over his decision to restrict some businesses early on in the pandemic, a decision he reversed last spring.

New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu remarked that "every governor had to write their own playbook based on what they're seeing," noting, for example, that Republican Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker "had to do the best he could."

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds touted her state's approach to meat processing plants at a time when much of the nation faced a shortage of meat. Unlike the hands-off approach of South Dakota, Reynolds said Iowa implemented a "robust data program" by ZIP code to monitor and test areas of the state where cases would be higher among factory workers.

More: These 9 states will end participation in unemployment assistance programs. Their reasons vary.

"I think we are reaping the benefits of that today, because we're coming back stronger than ever from the pandemic," she said.

Gov. Doug Ducey of Arizona also noted that his state took some coronavirus precautions, stating they "focused on the vulnerable right from the beginning."

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, meanwhile, reflected on the state's continued growth, a portion of which comes from residents leaving states controlled by Democrats.

"The lockdowns turned them into Republicans," DeSantis said. "People say, 'I was a Democrat because of education, and I'm in California and they're locking my kids out of school. I'm in Florida, people are free, people are happy.'"

Lee weighed in that life in the past year has served as a moment of truth for residents of some states where governors took a more aggressive approach to attempting to mitigate the spread of coronavirus, keeping businesses, activities and schools closed for longer.

The coronavirus has killed more than 588,000 Americans.

"They’ve been looking for a long time, but suddenly the differences between our states and those blue states are stark," Lee said.

The Tennessee governor also touched on the influx of federal stimulus money in the last year, funds that initiated under former President Donald Trump and have continued under President Joe Biden. Lee described the payments as the federal government "shoveling out money."

"It's very easy to spend somebody else's money, and they forget that this is actually the people's money," Lee said.

While Hannity asked Ducey, Reynolds and Sununu whether they believed Trump was still the leader of the Republican Party — a question both Ducey and Reynolds answered in the affirmative — Lee did not have to offer an answer.

Reach Natalie Allison at nallison@tennessean.com. Follow her on Twitter at @natalie_allison.

This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: GOP governors talk COVID with Sean Hannity at Nashville town hall

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