Hamilton County sues first business for noncompliance with mask mandate

Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Ed's Supply Company is seen on Tuesday, Sept. 1, 2020 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

The Hamilton County Health Department has filed its first lawsuit against a Chattanooga business alleging that it failed to comply with the county's COVID-19 mask mandate.

The health department alleges that on several occasions, employees and customers at Ed's Supply Company, 3011 South Hickory St., were not wearing masks or social distancing even after multiple warnings were issued to the company.

The county is asking a judge to order the business to close if it refuses to come into compliance. The company's lawyer, Sam Sanders, declined to comment.

When speaking with health inspectors about compliance, according to the lawsuit, those that worked or were affiliated with the business were repeatedly "advancing their belief as to the ineffectiveness of masking" and cited "their installation and use of UV ultraviolet light systems within their facility's air conditioning system to assist with disinfection" against COVID-19.

(READ MORE: Amid coronavirus, masks are not 100% effective, but then neither are seat belts)

According to the business' website and Facebook page, in light of COVID-19, curbside pick-up and delivery options were "highly recommended" as of March.

Hamilton County Health Officer Paul Hendricks and Becky Barnes, the department's administrator, are listed as the plaintiffs against Ed's Supply Company Inc. and Ernie Sanders, local owner of the heating and air conditioning supply business.

According to the lawsuit, the business was found to be out of compliance multiple times after an initial anonymous tip on July 17, followed by additional reportings through July and August.

After the tips, inspectors made several unannounced visits to verify whether customers and employees were wearing masks and social distancing over the two months.

Around Aug. 12, the business was informed of possible legal action and given a physical copy of the mandate and signage from the health department about the requirements.

On the following visit, within the next day, court filings state that the business was found to be in compliance, but on all subsequent unannounced follow-ups on Aug. 21 and 25, no customers or employees were observed complying with the mandate. The lawsuit was filed on Aug. 28.

The mandate, which went into effect July 10, 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 at least Sept. 8. This directive is for those 12 and older, with some exceptions.

(READ MORE: What you need to know about Hamilton County's mask mandate during the COVID-19 pandemic)

While the Chattanooga Police Department initially said it would only be focusing on education, rather than enforcement, in August the department lent two code enforcement workers from the Department of Economic and Community Development to aid the Health Department in enforcement for local businesses that are "egregiously" out of compliance within the city limits.

Hamilton County health official Lowe Wilkins, program manager for environmental health, wrote in a Tuesday email that chapter 95 of the Private Acts of 1885 and Tennessee code state that the health department "is authorized to affect the operation of businesses and places of public gatherings," including closing public establishments and implementing procedures to protect the health of residents during an epidemic or pandemic.

The department also stated that the majority of businesses have been in compliance and the lawsuit goes hand-in-hand with its goal to "reduce the spread of COVID-19 in our community."

Contact Tierra Hayes at tierrathejournalist@gmail.com.