Hamblen, Jefferson mayors will not mandate masks

Hamblen County Mayor Bill Brittain said Wednesday he will not issue an order mandating masks be worn in public, but encourages everyone to do so to help stop the spread of COVID-19.

“As county mayor, I will not issue an order that requires the use of masks or facial coverings in public places,” Brittain said. “But, I strongly encourage that we have a change of heart and attitude about protecting each other from the virus.”

Just hours later, Jefferson County Mayor Mark Potts released a press release stating he would not be mandating masks as well.

On Friday, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee gave an order that allowed county mayors in 89 counties that have state health departments to mandate masks if necessary.

The state has labeled Hamblen County a hotspot and the number of active cases Wednesday of COVID-19 rose above 200 for the first time. There have now been more than 400 positive tests in Hamblen County as the virus continues to spread and the county sees a large increase of cases.

Statewide, the numbers continue to increase.

Tennessee reported its largest single-day increase in COVID-19 cases as the state’s total climbed to nearly 56,000 cases on Wednesday.

The state Department of Health reported 2,472 additional cases and 20 more deaths, bringing the statewide total of people who have died from the illness caused by the new coronavirus to 685.

Health officials also reported an increase of 73 hospitalizations, bringing the state total to more than 3,020.

Shelby County, which includes Memphis, reported 302 additional cases on Wednesday, bringing the total in Tennessee’s largest county to 12,467.

Worried about rising cases and hospitalizations, Shelby County officials have ordered bars and clubs closed and they are telling restaurants to close at 10 p.m.

Sevier County also issued its own mask mandate just days ago as cases continue to climb in the heavily tourism trafficked area.

But, Brittain said, so far, the county has avoided a large amount of “serious” cases.

Brittain said he has heard from dozens of people and there is a split decision on whether masks should be mandated. He said a mask mandate would be impossible to enforce and used examples of people texting while driving or not wearing a seatbelt.

“Many of us will not follow the order,” he said.

Brittain said one way we can influence others is through the pocketbook. He said that way is through spending money at places that follow Center for Disease Control guidelines.

“Even without a mask mandate, there are ways we can influence others to wear a mask and follow the public health guidelines,” he said. “One of the most impactful can be spending our money with retailers and shops who follow the recommendations because they care about our health.”

He said there are businesses following the governor’s Tennessee Pledge, which gives guidelines on how businesses can operate safely, and there are others that are not.

“I strongly urge you to spend your money with businesses that want to keep you safe,” Brittain said.

Morristown Mayor Gary Chesney also weighed in on the mask issue Wednesday night in a social media post.

“It is my serious belief there is an above average chance we will all eventually be infected with the coronavirus,” he said. “It has already proven it moves faster than the development of the vaccine that will eventually come to kill it. Both your Mayors are on the same page here and we’re not blinking.”

Chesney also agreed that maybe taking the consumer approach would be the right way to handle the current situation.

“What if managers of grocery stores, Wal-Mart, big box do-it-yourself and sporting goods stores, et al, advertise ‘Here’s How We Value Your Health?’” Chesney asked. “Will we mask up, visit and spend our money with those merchants who count entrants and require a mask, instead of those stores and restaurants who cater to the angry and defiant? Where would you most likely get infected?”

Though numbers in Jefferson County have not been spiking as much as neighbors Hamblen and Sevier counties. The decision from Potts comes right after the county recorded its first death from COVID-19.

Both mayors said they encourage social distancing and washing hands frequently and voluntarily wearing a mask in public.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms that clear up within weeks. But for others, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, the virus can cause severe symptoms and be fatal.