Hamilton County issues face mask mandate, punishable by $50 fine, as COVID-19 cases continue to increase

Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Mayor Jim Coppinger speaks during a press conference at the Hamilton County Health Department's Golley Auditorium on Monday, July 6, 2020 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

People in Hamilton County will soon be required to wear a face covering or mask in public to help curb the spread of COVID-19, Mayor Jim Coppinger said during a media briefing on Monday.

Starting Friday, citizens who fail to cover their faces could be accused of a Class C misdemeanor offense, with penalties ranging from a $50 fine up to 30 days in jail.

The order by the Hamilton County Health Department, at the direction of Coppinger, requires masks or facial coverings be worn over the mouth and nose "at all times when indoors in all public and private buildings and when outdoors," through Sept. 8.

While the executive order lists a number of exceptions to the order including children under 12, people with certain existing respiratory conditions, people with mental or hearing challenges and all people in certain occasions, generally, people indoors must wear coverings unless in a house of worship that does not require coverings, seated at a restaurant for dining or a select few other private occasions.

People in their homes are generally exempt, but not in the common areas of apartments and condo complexes.

While outdoors, masks are not required unless people are unable to "substantially maintain appropriate social distancing from others outside of the person's household," but coverings should be accessible in case of an encounter with a larger group.

What's required:

Facial coverings shall fit snugly and securely against the side of the face. Cloth facial coverings are preferred and should include multiple layers of fabric. Surgical and other medical masks (e.g. N95) are not required and should be preserved for health care personnel, according to the executive order.

Businesses are required to uphold the order and to post signage warning patrons of the rules and are subject to civil and criminal penalties. Polling places are exempt from turning people away due to masks, but are encouraged to practice safety measures. Similarly, Hamilton County Schools facilities are exempt and subject to policies set by the Department of Education.

The decision to require masks in the county came after weeks of collaborating with local health officials and monitoring data, which shows an increase in active cases and hospitalizations, including patients in intensive care, Coppinger said.

"There are a few things that we can do to prevent this virus. One, as we talked about, is social distancing. The other one is effective personal hygiene, we talked about washing hands. And lastly - what we believe to be one of the most effective means - which is by wearing facial coverings or masks," Coppinger said.

"By taking this action we're hopeful it will minimize the number of active cases, the numbers of hospitalizations and certainly the numbers of ICU [patients]."

As Hamilton County officials weighed their response, several other Tennessee counties passed or attempted to pass mask mandates and cities, including Chattanooga, pushed for mandates, though they lacked the authority under Gov. Bill Lee's emergency executive order.

Lee recently allowed smaller counties to impose mask mandates at the local level, but the state's largest counties - including Hamilton - have had the ability to do so all along. Hamilton was the last of the state's four largest counties to implement the mandate.

"Obviously, this was an extremely difficult decision. It's not a comfortable position to be in, but we know it's the right thing to do," Coppinger said. "None of us should stand by and allow this horrific virus to continue to spread throughout our county, our cities within our county, our neighborhoods, our next-door neighbor, and certainly not our families."

(READ MORE: Despite smaller population, Hamilton County fares worse than Knox County during COVID-19)

He said widespread use of face coverings - which research shows reduces the spread of infected respiratory droplets - will not only minimize the spread of disease but help avoid further economic damage.

"We think that we will help our businesses become more successful by being more uniform," Coppinger said. "Our economy cannot afford another interruption Furthermore, we want to help our public school students with the opening of our classes on time. Our students need to attend school face-to-face with their teachers."

The school district is preparing guidelines to start school August 12 with a number of triggers for levels of online versus in-person learning that depend on how serious the county outbreak is at a given time.

(READ MORE: To wear or not to wear: Differences on masks come out in the open for Chattanoogans)

As of Monday morning, the Hamilton County Health Department had reported 2,871 cumulative COVID-19 cases, with 38 new cases added Monday.

Health Department administrator Becky Barnes said contact tracers are actively monitoring 941 people infected with COVID-19 in the community, as well as thousands of additional contacts.

COVID-19 hospitalizations jumped over the weekend, from 46 on Friday to 55 patients in the hospital as of Monday's briefing, Barnes said. Of those patients, 31 are Hamilton County residents and 17 are in intensive care.

Five new deaths have also been reported since Thursday, for a total of 35 deaths in the county since the pandemic began.

Contact Sarah Grace Taylor at staylor@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6416. Follow her on Twitter @_sarahgtaylor.

Contact Elizabeth Fite at efite@times freepress.com or follow her on Twitter @ecfite.

Face coverings are not required for:

a. Children under 12 years of age. b. Anyone with documented medical contraindications to facial covers such as active asthma or COPD. c. Anyone who is acutely short of breath or incapacitated such that they would be unable to remove the covering on their own. d. People who are deaf or hard of hearing – or those who care for or interact with a person who is hearing impaired if they rely on lip reading to communicate. In this situation, consider using a clear face covering. If a clear face covering is not available, consider whether you can use written communication, use closed captioning or decrease background noise to make communication possible while wearing a cloth face covering that blocks your lips. e. People with intellectual and developmental disabilities, mental health conditions or other sensory sensitivities, who may have challenges wearing a cloth face covering. Those people are encouraged to consult with their health care provider for advice about wearing cloth face coverings. f. People in a house of worship unless required by that house of worship, but wearing a face covering in such locations is strongly encouraged. g. People who are outdoors unless the person cannot substantially maintain appropriate social distancing from others outside of the person's household. Facial coverings should, however, be kept accessible in the event of encountering a larger group. h. People in cars, trucks, or other private or commercial vehicles either alone or with household members. However, all occupants in vehicles transporting more than one coworker, carpooling or carrying other non-household passengers shall wear facial coverings. i. People working under conditions where appropriate social distancing from others outside of the person's household can be maintained. A facial covering should be kept accessible in the event that others enter the area. j. Office workers and any other employee working alone in an area (such as a private office) where the public or other workers are not present or do not usually enter. A facial covering should be kept accessible in the event others enter that area. k. People who are exercising, such as jogging, bicycling, or swimming, etc., either alone or in small groups where physical distancing of 6 feet or greater can be maintained. A facial covering should be kept accessible in the event of encountering a larger group. l. Private residences are exempt, but hallways, elevators and other common areas of apartment buildings, condominiums and other medium- or high-density residential structures are not exempt. m. People seated for the purpose of dining in any restaurant or business that provides food and/or drink for on-premises consumption.