In times of emergency, it is reasonable to allow a governor some latitude in decisions to meet the pressing needs of a state.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee exercised that flexibility when his office approved a $8.2 million no-bid contract for a manufacturer to produce masks as potential barriers to transmission of the novel coronavirus. Renfro Corporation, a global manufacturer of leg wear products in Cleveland, Tennessee, produced 5 million masks for local health departments to distribute to the public.
As Staff Writer Jonathan Roberts reported in Thursday’s edition, the masks’ usefulness against COVID-19 came into question when people noticed the knit, one-layer fabric was rather porous and partially see-through. State Gloria Johnson, a Knoxville Democrat, liked the material’s effectiveness “to trying to keep chipmunks out of your garden with chicken wire.”
We are not experts on what constitutes a quality mask. We do know, however, that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that cloth masks include multiple layers of fabric. The Renfo masks clearly do not meet that standard.
In its rush to respond to a legitimate need, the governor’s Unified Command Group apparently bypassed the CDC’s recommendation.
When asked about the no-bond contract, state Sen. Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol, supported some latitude in the governor’s emergency powers. “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 told Roberts.
Lundberg is right, but one expectation must remain in place: standards. The only standard the Unified Command Group cited in its response to our inquiry was that the material “allows for easier breathing by the user.”
Tennessee residents should be able to expect that even during an emergency, their tax dollars are spent wisely.
Lundberg said while he would reserve judgment until seeing the masks for himself, he told Roberts that generally wondering about the effectiveness of a mask that is at least somewhat porous is “valid.”
That’s a reasonable response for someone responsible for other people’s money.
One local legislator, however, turned to a tried and true method of dodging the question: playing the victim. Don’t want to answer the question? Cry foul.
More precisely, state Rep. Micah Van Huss cast his fellow Republican Lee as the victim. The Jonesborough legislator told Roberts the Press should spend its time "reporting on news that gives Tennesseans hope in our humanity instead of dividing them with a political hit on Governor Lee.” Van Huss ignored our second request for direct comment on the issue at hand.
Clearly, Van Huss publicly abdicated custodial responsibility over your money. He even boasted about his puerile response on social media.
If Van Huss actually read this newspaper, he would know that we have published numerous articles about “hope in our humanity” during this crisis. Our reporters repeatedly have written about relief projects, volunteers, creative coping efforts and inspiring people amid this pandemic.
Our job here, though, is not merely to play cheerleader. Sometimes we must ask tough questions in the interests of our readers.
Van Huss should be doing the same and answering them when asked.