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Staff photo by Troy Stolt / Tiara and Tia Ball wear masks as they cross Market Street on Friday, Aug. 7, 2020 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Although Gov. Bill Lee has not imposed a state mask mandate for all of Tennessee, Chattanooga area business groups are supporting Hamilton County's requirement that all persons wear masks in public spaces until at least early October.

The Hamilton County Health Department, at the urging of Mayor Jim Coppinger, recently extended the mask mandate in Hamilton County through Oct. 8. The requirement to wear a mask in most businesses and public places was initially put in place in July but was extended earlier this month for another 30 days to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, which has infected more than 8,500 persons and resulted in 77 deaths.

The government order to require facial coverings in stores, bars and restaurants has drawn protests against the government requiring citizens to have face coverings in private businesses.

But Chattanooga's biggest business groups, including the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce, the Chattanooga Tourism Co., Associated General Contractors of East Tennessee, the Home Builders Association of Greater Chattanooga, Greater Chattanooga REALTORS and the Chattanooga Regional Manufacturers Association, all voiced support for extending the Hamilton County mask mandate. Leaders of the business groups said wearing masks helped limit the spread of the coronavirus and allows the Chattanooga community to better continue or resume doing business and serving visitors safely.

"The more safely our members can do business and serve our community, the shorter their path to economic recovery," said Christy Gillenwater, CEO of the Chattanooga Chamber of Commerce. "Data is showing that areas with mask mandates see less transmission than those without."

Melissa McPheeters, a health policy research professor at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, said the decline in new infections in recent weeks could reflect the presence of the mask mandate, which has shown to have an effect in other areas as well.

"This should give us incentive to keep doing that important work and keep moving in that right direction," she said.

In recent surveys of Chamber member businesses, 85% of respondents said wearing masks increases public confidence and 84% said they support the recent mask mandate.

Barry White, CEO of the Chattanooga Tourism Co., said requiring visitors to put on masks in public places in Chattanooga is more reassuring to tourists than a deterrent to their coming to the Scenic City.

"Data from Destination Analysts shows us the vast majority of visitors want to travel to destinations that have a mask mandate in place," White said. "It also helps support our local economy and our community's tourism and hospitality jobs."

Construction and manufacturing groups also backed the mask mandate.

Leslie Gower, executive director of the Associated General Contractors of East Tennessee, said builders "stand behind initiatives that keep the construction industry working while protecting the health and welfare of our workforce." Doug Fisher, executive officer for the Home Builders Association of Greater Chattanooga, said, "We view this order, not as the government trying to tell us all what to do but rather as a method to keep our economy moving forward."

Megan King, president and CEO of the Chattanooga Regional Manufacturers Association, said extending the mask mandate "further supports the commitment manufacturers have to safety, as the industry continues to prioritize safe workplaces throughout this challenging time."

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or at 423-757-6340.

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Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / Dr. David Bruce holds a mass as he speaks during the press conference. Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger and several other officials spoke during the press conference Thursday at the Hamilton County Health Department.
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