A day after Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee announced he would grant Bill Brittain, and 88 other Tennessee county mayors the power to mandate the wearing of masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the Hamblen County mayor was weighing the decisions ahead.
“I’m going to talk to a lot of folks around. I’m not going to make a decision unilaterally,” he said. “I’m going to talk to other county officials, talk to health officials and discuss enforcement options.”
Gov. Bill Lee signed an executive order Friday granting 89 counties the authority to issue local mask requirements if COVID-19 cases spike. Lee said in a statement that local governments expressed a need for greater flexibility to address a rise in cases.
Lee’s order does not include the state’s six counties with locally run health departments: Sullivan, Knox, Hamilton, Davidson, Madison and Shelby counties.
The order said wearing a face covering is a “simple step that each Tennessean can take to slow the spread of the virus, which prevents having to take more drastic and disruptive measures for our economy and job market.”
Brttain, who announced one worker in his office has tested postive and another is home with symptoms, said he isn’t going to be in a hurry to exercise his newly granted power. He said he wants to make the best decision for the community.
“I’ve got a conference call with outher county mayors in the region Monday,” he said. “We’re going to talk about it.”
Brittain said he believes Sevier County Mayor Larry Watters will be on the call. Both Sevier and Hamblen counties have been identified by the state as COVID hotspots.
“There’s a variety of opinions,” he said, adding he’d certainly speak with Morristown Mayor Gary Chesney as well. “I need to take the temperature of everybody and make the best decision for our comminty while factoring what’s practical.
As leader of the Hamblen County Coronavirus Task Force, Brittain said he expects he’ll receive input from emails, texts and social media posts and will try to value everyone’s input.
According to the Morristown charter, it appears Chensey already had the authority to take action to prevent the spread of communicable diseases.
Larger communities in Tennessee with their own health departments already had the authority to decide their own course of action. Friday both Shelby and Knox counties put mask mandates into effect.
Shelby County Public Health Department Director Alisa Haushalter announced the new mandate on Friday afternoon and said it would be effective immediately for everyone over 12. Case numbers are expected to increase, especially after the July 4 holiday weekend, Haushalter said, and she expects to announce more restrictions next week, especially for bars, restaurants, and similar venues.
“We have always supported wearing masks, but we had a legal opinion saying that we could not mandate it,” Haushalter said. “Now we have an opinion that we do have the legal authority.”
The order from the Knox County Board of Health specifically mandates that in most indoor public places, every person aged 12 or older must wear a face covering when they are within 6 feet of another person who does not live in the same household, the according to published reports.
The order will remain in place until the board of health votes to rescind or change it.
For those who do not have masks, the county health departments are providing free, state-issued cloth masks.
Places of worship are exempt from the Knoxville order as are federal facilities, nursing homes, retirement homes and assisted living facilities. People who are actively eating or drinking at restaurants and bars do not have to wear masks, nor do the deaf and hard of hearing and those who are communicating with them, people who need to remove a mask to receive medical treatment and people with conditions that prevent them from wearing masks.
Details of the Shelby order were not immediately available, but Haushalter said it will be similar to Nashville’s order, which carves out exceptions similar to the Knox County order.
In Chattanooga, masks will be required to enter city buildings when they reopen on Monday, the Chattanooga Times Free Press reported. Mayor Andy Berke lacks authority to mandate masks be worn in other public areas of the city because Gov. Bill Lee has given that authority to the county health departments. Hamilton County is still considering whether to issue a wider mandate. Meanwhile, Berke has pressed for more authority to fight the spread of COVID-19 within city limits.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks.
For some, especially older adults and those with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness and even be fatal.