Hamilton County has no plans to reinstate mask mandates amid COVID case surge

State law banning local restrictions has been put on hold, but local officials say now is not the time

Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / A sign promoting mask wearing is seen outside of the Trustee's office at the Hamilton County Courthouse on Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2021 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

As Hamilton County sees a surge in COVID-19 cases attributed to the omicron variant, its leaders have no plans to implement mask mandates.

The topic of the recent surge surfaced during the Hamilton County Commission's meeting Wednesday. It came amid the end-of-year holidays, which have historically led to surges in COVID-19 cases due to family congregation and events. Students are slated to return to school Jan. 5.

The ability for local authorities to impose mask mandates was curtailed by a new state law passed at an October special legislative session called to rein in public health measures intended to address a pandemic that has killed more than 20,000 Tennesseans. But the law has been blocked from taking effect by a federal judge pending a lawsuit filed by students with disabilities, arguing that the law prevents school districts from keeping them safe.

Even if the law were in effect, it's likely the latest surge in cases would meet the threshold put in place by lawmakers for severe caseloads before a mask mandate could be imposed.

"I'm not interested in looking at [a mask mandate] again right now, even though it may meet the threshold," Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger said in a Thursday interview, adding that COVID-19 doesn't seem to be going away and is actively having an impact on the local economy.

Although Coppinger said he is concerned about the number of COVID-19-related hospitalizations in the county, he added that students need to return to a sense of normalcy at this point in the pandemic.

The Hamilton County Health Department reported 727 new cases Thursday, solidifying that it met the definition of "severe conditions" laid out in a new state law that grants school boards the authority to move to implement mask mandates on a school-by-school basis but only when the governor has declared a COVID-19-related state of emergency.

No such order is in place, and none is on Gov. Bill Lee's radar.

"There are no plans for a state emergency order at this time," Casey Black, Gov. Bill Lee's press secretary, told the Times Free Press by telephone on Thursday.

(READ MORE: Hamilton County mayor decries state stripping of local public health powers)

Hamilton County school board chair Tucker McClendon did not respond to multiple requests for comment about whether school officials might reimpose a mask mandate as classes resume this coming week. The district announced Nov. 5 that it was lifting all mask requirements, on a day when the county announced 45 new cases. The county announced 16 times that many new cases Thursday.

Hamilton County has reported 3,695 cases in the past 14 days, according to the department. The two-week total amounts to 1,009 cases per 100,000 people based on the most recent U.S. Census population estimate.

Meanwhile, health experts are warning the rise in COVID-19 case reports, driven by the omicron variant, represents a significant undercount of the actual spread of the virus as at-home testing becomes more prevalent.

(READ MORE: Hamilton County Schools says it can't enforce COVID-19 quarantines of individuals as a result of new state laws)

A Dec. 10 order by U.S. District Court Judge Waverly Crenshaw in the Middle District of Tennessee temporarily blocked the law passed in the General Assembly's fall special session on COVID-19. During the special session, Republicans took aim at actions by some local school boards and county health boards, imposing new restrictions on public schools from requiring masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The law also bars local officials from making decisions about quarantines.

Writing that the law "offers no protection to students, let alone those that are disabled," Crenshaw ruled that it cannot be enforced until pending lawsuits filed by advocates for disabled students in multiple school districts in all three of the state's grand divisions are resolved.

The lawsuit against the state was filed on behalf of eight students between the ages of seven and 14 who have disabilities and who are deemed by federal health officials as being more vulnerable to serious illness or death if they get COVID-19.

Crenshaw's ruling also blocks the law's provision that says local health and school officials can't make their own coronavirus quarantining decisions.

In a telephone interview Thursday, Tennessee Senate Minority Leader Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, said "I believe that federal courts have found that the governor's mandate and the prohibition on schools' anti-COVID policies can't be enforced."

"Fundamentally, the governor and the legislature made knee-jerk decisions post-delta and pre-omicron, and those decisions are indefensible when parts of the state are seeing such an explosion of cases," Yarbro said. "The state shouldn't have been tying the hands of business and schools and other organizations behind their back. Courts have had to intervene and have found that the state's decisions have not met legal muster."

Hamilton County's threshold was surpassed after the county posted a combined 1,675 new COVID-19 cases Wednesday and Thursday, which is more than any other two-day period during the entire pandemic at a time when health officials say case reports should be viewed as a significant underestimate of disease burden.

The county is averaging 311 new cases a day in the past week, a sharp increase from the start of the month when the county averaged 56 new cases a day. The increase in cases is occurring most sharply among unvaccinated residents, according to state data.

"Unfortunately, we still are in this period of time where we unfortunately have to be mindful of the seriousness of the pandemic that we currently are living in," said Commissioner Katherlyn Geter, D-Ridgeside, at Wednesday's county commission meeting. "Now is not the time for us to let our foot off the gas so to speak, but to be more aware of what you need to do to keep myself safe and our loved ones safe."

Geter did not respond to follow-up requests for comment.

The county reported 124 hospitalizations with the virus Wednesday, the highest single-day total since mid-October.

Dr. Lisa Piercey, commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Health, said at a news briefing in December that case counts will likely continue to rise, but people should look at trends in the data rather than specific data points since at-home tests are largely not reported to the state.

(READ MORE: Tennessee governor's aide warned new COVID law was illegal)

Although Coppinger said he has no plans to reinstate a countywide mask mandate, it's unclear whether Hamilton County Schools will pursue the increased safety measures heading into the new semester.

Schools attempting to protect their students have said their hands are tied in terms of implementing other mitigation strategies as they plan to reopen next week - even though Crenshaw's ruling explicitly states schools have a right to do so for now.

Hamilton County Schools and other public school districts in Tennessee have said they can no longer stop students who are exposed to or who test positive for COVID-19 from attending school based on their diagnosis alone, according to the district's interpretation of the new state law.

The school district announced its policy change in a news release last month, which stated: "For purposes of COVID-19, a public school district may no longer enforce an individual quarantine at any point. This authority will be left solely to the discretion of the [state] commissioner of health."

Contact Logan Hullinger by phone at 814-319-5158 or via email at lhullinger@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @LoganHullinger.