Hamilton County sheriff will lean toward warnings in COVID-19 mask enforcement

Staff photo by Doug Strickland / Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond listens as Mayor Jim Coppinger presents his fiscal year 2020 budget during a budget workshop at Hamilton County's McDaniel Building on Tuesday, June 4, 2019, in Chattanooga.

Beginning Friday, people can face a $50 fine and up to 30 days in jail for failing to wear a mask in Hamilton County as required by a recent executive order. But Sheriff Jim Hammond doubts "very seriously" that you will.

After County Mayor Jim Coppinger and the Hamilton County Health Department issued an order on Monday requiring masks in almost all public situations, Hammond told residents that sheriff's deputies will not "harass" them and will issue warnings when possible.

"This is certainly not something [I] would wish to have to do as sheriff, but I think we have to look at the realities of what's happening with this virus," he said. "It's not my intent as sheriff ... to harass people about this. We want to ask them to be safe, we want to talk to folks and give warning to what could happen and hopefully they will comply with it."

Hammond said deputies, who will be wearing masks in most circumstances, will not be responding to every call of someone not wearing a mask or imposing citations on every offender because the goal is safety, not sending people to jail.

However, if a judge sentences someone to jail time, the county will carry out the sentence, he said.

"I doubt very seriously it'll come to that, but if a citation is before a magistrate or a judge, that judge will determine what the sentence would be," Hammond said. "If the judge does give a sentence, then we will incarcerate that person for that length of time."

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

Hammond's intent to issue warnings echoes Coppinger's plan with the order, which he issued later than some other Tennessee cities in the interest of giving citizens the chance to voluntarily wear masks before making it mandatory.

"None of this was ever intended to be approached with a heavy hand," Coppinger told the Times Free Press Tuesday. "It was never about the consequences or the punitive part, it was about having a mechanism to enforce if we needed to do so, and we have it.

"So we're not going to be out there looking for violations. Just like there's not a police officer on every corner or a fire hydrant on the end of every driveway."

While the order makes violations of the mask policy a Class C misdemeanor, Coppinger said not all enforcement will be criminal.

"When you look at our staffing, you know we're not going to be, even if we wanted to, able to be on top of every individual," he said. ""So the health department is involved with it in the same way they are with any health violation throughout the year, and some of the violations with restaurants or businesses will be cited by them, not just the sheriff's office."

According to County Attorney Rheubin Taylor, businesses cited by the health department under authority provided by the state may be subject to legal action.

"State law gives the health officer, Dr. [Paul] Hendricks, the authority to make certain actions within public health," Taylor said at a Monday news conference when asked about the county's authority.

"This is a health department action, not a [general government] action," he added. "Therefore the health department institutes a proceeding when someone is violating the order."

Taylor said that if businesses are cited by the health department, the attorney's office would then file the necessary paperwork to present the citation to sessions or chancery court.

Chattanooga Police Department spokeswoman Elisa Myzal told the Times Free Press the department had no comment Tuesday on how the order, which goes into effect Friday, would be enforced within the city or whether Chattanooga officers would be wearing masks on patrol.

For more information about face covering requirements, view the order here.

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