Hamilton County considers mask mandate as Tennessee renews COVID-19 emergency order

Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Gov. Bill Lee, right, and Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger talk after a press conference at Wilson Air Center on Tuesday, April 14, 2020 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

As Tennessee prepares for several more weeks in a state of emergency, Hamilton County is "seriously considering" mandating masks be worn in public places to stop the spread of the virus.

Gov. Bill Lee extended two emergency executive orders Monday that were set to expire Wednesday, stretching Tennessee's April state of emergency declaration an additional eight weeks through Aug. 29.

As the state hunkers down and local cases continue to rise, Chattanooga and Hamilton County are considering a mandate to require masks be worn in public places.

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

Late last week, Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke said that he supported a mask mandate in the city- as has been implemented in Memphis and Nashville over the past week- but he was unsure if he had the authority to do so.

"I will tell everybody that I believe we should all wear a mask when we're out in public and the voluntary method has so far not been successful in accomplishing that," Berke said at a news conference Friday. "That's why you're seeing cities across the country taking action, but many of them have different powers in their state than we have."

On Monday, the governor's office told the Times Free Press that only Davidson, Shelby, Knox, Hamilton, Madison and Sullivan counties, which operate their own health departments, would have the authority on such mandates.

That leaves the state's other 89 counties and municipalities within those six counties without a say in the mandates, as has been the case with business closures and other COVID-19 public safety measures.

In Hamilton County, Mayor Jim Coppinger has said throughout the pandemic that he is hesitant to mandate anything without enforcement power and that he, like Gov. Lee, would trust in the "common sense" of citizens to take safety precautions.

"We've always been hopeful that people would comply with our requests as we started reopening things," Coppinger told the Times Free Press Monday. "We've always been hopeful that people would be respectful of others because you're not only protecting yourself but you're protecting them ... but we are continuing, as we have for the last several weeks, to see a high percentage of people inside buildings not in compliance."

With a lack of masks being worn and both cases and deaths climbing rapidly in the county, Coppinger said Monday he is "seriously considering" a mask mandate.

"I would certainly be less than honest if I didn't tell you that we're taking all of our options seriously now," he said. "We're having to look at how to ensure that safety precautions are being met."

With the county unresolved, a spokeswoman for Berke said Monday that the city will consider other options.

"According to an earlier executive order from Governor Lee, only the Hamilton County Health Department has the authority to issue orders regarding COVID-19 policies. Wearing a mask is not a political statement, it's a public health and safety necessity right now," Communications Director Richel Albright wrote Monday, one week before the city is set to re-open its own facilities closed due to the virus.

"A new study from the University of Washington shows that wearing a mask, whether cloth or medical grade, can help reduce the risk of respiratory illness like COVID-19 by more than one-third. It's clear right now that asking residents to voluntarily wear masks isn't working, so we are seeing if there's anything we can do."

In other parts of the state, municipalities and counties are working to find ways to require masks without their own health department. Earlier on Monday, Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon mandated that masks be worn in all city buildings, starting Wednesday. Last week, the Memphis City Council voted to mandate masks within the city, without going through the county's health department, and is facing uncertainty on its authority to do so.

In Wilson County, the mayor mandated masks be worn, but walked the action back the same day after being told he didn't have the authority to do so.

In renewing the state of emergency order, Lee continued a subsequent order that allowed local governing bodies to meet remotely during the virus. That order was due to expire Wednesday.

The Hamilton County Commission announced Monday that previously scheduled in-person meetings of the body on Wednesday would be held virtually instead, in light of Lee's decision.

The commission and Chattanooga City Council have both been meeting virtually since April and March, respectively, to avoid the spread of the virus.

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