FRANKLIN, Tenn. — Amid a nonprofit group’s lawsuit against Republican Gov. Bill Lee alleging his coronavirus restrictions were unconstitutional, the group is putting up billboards to encourage residents to return to normal.
Tennessee Stands, a conservative group with offices across the state, started the initiative in Johnson City and put up additional billboards in Bristol and Kingsport. The billboards read, “Your Compliance is prolonging this nightmare. Ditch the mask.”
Tri-City Director Danielle Goodrich led the effort in the three cities. She founded the group Johnson City Freedom to try and get kids in person for school during the pandemic. Goodrich also took issue with schools eventually requiring students to mask up upon reopening. She told The Federalist that Americans should not have to “bow down to these absurd, slavish, and oppressive rules, which the government doesn’t have the authority to do.”
“The government can’t tell you not to work,” Goodrich said. “You need to eat. These are unalienable rights. The government’s only purpose is to uphold and protect the unalienable rights of the people, not to infringe upon them.”
The group filed suit against Lee in August, alleging that a statute giving Lee emergency powers and the ability to grant such powers to counties is unconstitutional. The annotated code says Tennessee law lets governors “assume direct operational control” over management functions in a declared emergency with no oversight from the legislature. The governor is also permitted under the code “to delegate such powers as the governor may deem prudent.”
The group believes this law gives Lee an inordinate amount of power and authority. According to the Tennessee constitution, “duties shall be prescribed by the General Assembly” for all county executives. Further, the group alleges that a clause in article two — “No person or persons belonging to one of these departments shall exercise any of the powers properly belonging to either of the others,” provides a rationale for why Lee overstepped his boundaries.
Gary Humble, executive director of Tennessee Stands, told The Federalist Lee “handled [COVID] horribly.”
“Our governor likes to go around saying we didn’t have a statewide mask mandate and that he let the locals make decisions,” Humble said. “That’s partially true. But by executive order, he did issue a stay-at-home order. He did limit gatherings to 10 people. He did restrict businesses. He did deem some businesses non-essential and shut them down. And then he delegated power to county mayors to make mask mandates. And then he delegated powers to our six metro health departments across the state and gave them the authority to restrict businesses and close businesses.”
Lee ended public health orders in April and signed an executive order to do away with mask mandates in 89 counties. His administration also withdrew the state from federal $300 weekly unemployment benefits Tuesday as the state opens up. In August, then-President Donald Trump appointed the governor to serve on the Council of Governors, noting Lee has done a “fantastic job in a fantastic state.”
Tennessee Stands takes issue with Lee’s COVID response. Hundreds of volunteers are working on the billboard project. One is Angela Grgic, a resident of Columbia who joked her last name would look like a typo. She joined the initiative because the government’s response “didn’t feel right.”
“It seemed like my rights — my constitutional rights — were being taken away from me without my permission,” Grgic said in an interview. “It just didn’t feel right. So some friends and I got together and we were talking about it a lot. We found Gary and Tennessee Stands. We started watching videos and doing more research. We started realizing, ‘Man, why are we complying? Why are we just going along with this because everybody else is?’ We just started pushing back.”
“It just caught fire and all of a sudden the rest of the state wants to help raise money and put up their own billboards,” she added. “So we’re working to do that now.”
Two Johnston City volunteers concurred with Grgic, and told The Federalist masks have become a political tool. Dr. Denise Sibley, M.D., said masks are “a symbol of control rather than they are a medical intervention.” She has lived in Johnson City for 31 years.
“This is all part of COVID theatre,” Sibley said. “So, if you want to wear it for your theatre, that’s fine. But don’t make everyone else see a new show.”
Austin Russell, a 22-year-old who recently moved from Riverside, California, said he worked at Costco in 120-degree weather and had to lug 200-pound carts while wearing a face covering. He said this damaged his lungs.
“We want to help people see that it’s normal not to wear masks and that there shouldn’t be a cancel culture for someone who doesn’t want to virtue signal that they’re trying to be safe,” Russell said.
Through the billboard project, the group seeks to spread the word that Tennesseans should feel comfortable no longer wearing face coverings and not be intimidated into enabling what some refer to as the “never-ending pandemic.”
Humble said the group is setting up billboards in Knoxville next, followed by Nashville, the state capital. Groups in Kansas and Arizona have called the nonprofit seeking to use the billboard design with their own logos.
“I hope this encourages people that are tired of complying with arbitrary rules that there are other people like them,” said Humble. “If we all just stop doing this tomorrow, it ends. The only power these people have is our compliance. It’s the simple principle of the consent of the governed. We’re consenting to unconstitutional government.”