Local legislator supports governor’s $8.2 million mask purchase

Jonathan Roberts • May 13, 2020 at 10:00 PM

While some state lawmakers question Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee’s decision to enter into an $8.2 million no-bid contract to buy five million face masks, at least one local lawmaker is supportive of the governor’s decision.

State Sen. Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol, said “in this case,” he is in favor of the governor using his emergency powers to secure protective equipment for Tennesseans, even though Lundberg himself has not yet seen the masks in person.

“Frankly, I think we as a legislature have confidence in the governor,” Lundberg said, adding that they have confidence in the governor to “run the state on a day-to-day basis.”

“During a pandemic, we have expectations that things will need to happen that won’t have that usual check and balance of bids, submissions, requests for comment, requests for quotes in that process,” Lundberg said.

As people started receiving their masks, which are knit with one layer of fabric and partially see-through, criticism and concern began rolling in, with a Knoxville state representative likening the material to “chicken wire.”

“A friend picked 1 up and said it looks like somebody cut a sock in half it’s very porous and I can see through it,” Tweeted Rep. Gloria Johnson (D-Knoxville). “It’s like trying to keep chipmunks out of your garden with chicken wire.”

Lundberg said he’d have to reserve comment on the quality until he sees the mask himself, but did say generally wondering about the effectiveness of a mask that is at least somewhat porous is “valid.”

Last week, the first round of face masks reached health departments across the state, with millions more on the way over the next month. The masks were purchased from Renfro Corporation, a global manufacturer of legwear products. A statement from Gov. Lee’s Unified Command Group, which made the purchase, said Renfro was chosen without bids because the company has a Tennessee facility and was able to send the state its first shipment in short order. Each mask costs about $1.65.

“(B)ecause Renfro was able to quickly and cost-effectively produce five million face coverings the state needed to help safely reopen the economy, the state did not seek bids from other parties,” the statement read.

Dean Flener, a spokesperson for Lee’s Unified Command Group, said “neither this mask, nor any other cloth face mask is intended for medical use” meet cloth face mask recommendations from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, though the CDC’s webpage on face coverings also recommends masks “include multiple layers of fabric.”

“It’s also important to note that even when wearing a cloth face mask or covering, Tennesseans still need to observe social distancing and public gathering guidelines when they are out in public,” Flener said. “The Renfro masks are made with a terry polyester material with Lycra blend tie straps. The material also allows for easier breathing by the user, which is also CDC recommendation.

“The masks are washable, reusable, and treated with Silvadur, a non-toxic silver antimicrobial good for 25 industrial washes. The mask is contoured for fit and to provide less movement and gaping at the nose bridge and eyes,” he added.

A spokesperson for state Rep. Matthew Hill, R-Jonesborough, declined to comment on the contract or the masks themselves, saying Hill had yet to see the masks in person and hasn’t reviewed the contract.

State Rep. Micah Van Huss, R-Jonesborough, when asked for comment on the masks and the contract, said the Press should “spend their time reporting on news that gives Tennesseans hope in our humanity instead of dividing them with a political hit on Governor Lee.”

Van Huss did not respond to a subsequent request for comment. State Sen. Rusty Crowe, R-Johnson City, and state Rep. Timothy Hill, R-Blountville, could not be reached for comment.