Hamilton County mask mandate extended through March

Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger talks before a press conference at the Hamilton County Health Department's Golley Auditorium on Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2021 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger renewed a countywide mask mandate on Wednesday, extending the requirement through March 31.

"I always start out when people ask about masks that I don't like wearing a mask," Coppinger said. "But I do know it's protecting me.

"And we really feel like that. If we can really buckle down between now and the 31st of March, we can see a significant difference," he said of his longest renewal yet.

Coppinger has stayed away from business closures and other regulations but has mandated masks since July. He said it's a necessary trade-off to avoid further restrictions amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

"We believe that it is necessary to do a mask [mandate] extension," he said, adding that the masks facilitate coexistence with the virus. "We know the mask has helped us to coexist in many ways. We know that it's helped us with our unemployment - to be able to keep people working."

Coppinger attributed schools and businesses remaining open to the mask mandate and implored citizens to comply.

"But we need your help. We need you to comply without people complaining on you and us having to go out there," Coppinger said, noting that the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office and Chattanooga Police are not enforcing the potential $50 fine or jail time penalties associated with the mandate.

"Surprisingly enough, most of our response now is [citizens] want more enforcement," Coppinger said. "And again, as you know, from the very beginning, we've had issues with enforcement because we had partners that didn't want to do that. But the health department has taken that on along with their other tasks."

Coppinger said that he is overall "really satisfied" with the county's compliance. There is currently only one business dealing with the county attorney's office due to noncompliance, but he anticipates that they will make necessary changes before any potential case goes to court.

Infectious disease specialists Dr. Adam Soufleris and Dr. Mark Anderson backed Coppinger's decision.

"Think about playing Russian roulette, another activity - along with not wearing a mask - that I would not recommend," Anderson said. "So if you got one of those empty chambers, it's no big deal. But if you're the person that gets a full chamber, it's a very big deal."

"If you're the person that it turns out, are very susceptible to this virus and its complications, there's a significant chance you're going to be dead or permanently disabled or will spend days or weeks in the hospital or ICU," Anderson said.

"Wearing a mask is not an infringement on your freedom, it's a statement that you care about your fellow man," added Anderson, who said he caught the virus through an asymptomatic relative.

But there is hope, Soufleris said, in the vaccinations that are slowly becoming available.

"Hang in there and let's look for brighter days," he said. "I think they're on the way."

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