Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee on Sunday announced new social gathering restrictions while still refusing to implement a mask mandate despite pleas from front-line health care workers in a state experiencing the highest new cases per capita in the country.

“Many people think that a statewide mask mandate would improve mask wearing. Many think it would have the opposite effect. This has been a heavily politicized issue, please do not get caught up in that,” Lee said during a rare statewide address that lasted just over five minutes.

The Republican called the state “ground zero” in the COVID-19 battle and urged Tennesseans not to gather with people outside their immediate households during the upcoming holidays.

Yet instead of a mask mandate, Lee signed an executive order limiting public gatherings to 10 people. However, places of worship, weddings and funerals are exempt from the order.

His message comes just a day after Lee confirmed that his wife Maria had tested positive for COVID-19. Lee said he has tested negative but will remain in quarantine at the governor’s residence.

Tennessee is one of a dozen states without a mask mandate. Instead, local counties have the option of implementing their own mask restrictions. The White House has repeatedly recommended Tennessee adopt such statewide mandates as cases skyrocket.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has long advised people to wear masks because they help prevent people who are infected — whether they know it or not — from spreading the coronavirus.

“Tonight, I am asking you to make some hard decisions,” Lee said. “I am asking you to not engage in indoor gatherings for the holidays that include anyone outside your household.”

Meanwhile, earlier Sunday, Tennessee’s Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey issued a strong warning that the state’s hospitals were reaching a breaking point and staffing was becoming increasingly more difficult. She pleaded with the public not to gather with others outside of their immediate households.

“If we have another surge after Christmas and New Year’s like we did after Thanksgiving, it will completely break our hospitals,” Piercey told reporters.

There were roughly 1,567 new cases per 100,000 people in Tennessee over the past two weeks, which ranks first in the country for new cases per capita, according to researchers with Johns Hopkins. One in every 112 people in Tennessee tested positive in the past week.

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