Republican U.S. Senate rivals Bill Hagerty and Manny Sethi are getting pilloried on social media after they and a number of other attendees at a Hamilton County Republican Party fundraiser were shown in photos as maskless and not maintaining social distance in a county with COVID-19 mask-wearing requirements.
Also coming under fire was Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond, shown maskless and not maintaining six-foot distance either at the GOP's Lincoln Day Dinner on Friday night.
Hagerty's campaign posted a montage of photos on his campaign's Facebook page of the candidate, a former U.S. ambassador to Japan, with other unmasked attendees — including keynote speakers Diamond and Silk.
"So the citizens of Hamilton county are under a mask mandate but I see no masks," one Facebook user commented.
Another posted, "You are a doctor," in response to trauma surgeon Sethi's Twitter account, which showed the unmasked Sethi meeting with unmasked supporters. "Where is your mask? Where are everyone else's? I thought there was a mandate?!"
Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger, who implemented the county's mask mandate amid a dramatic rise in local coronavirus infection rates, did not attend the GOP fundraiser and could not be reached for comment on Monday.
According to the mask mandate, "all persons in Hamilton County shall wear a facial covering or mask which covers the mouth and nose at all times when indoors in all public and private buildings." The mandate lists a number of exceptions, including "persons seated for the purpose of dining in any restaurant or business that provides food and/or drink for on premises consumption."
The GOP fundraiser included dinner.
In a statement, Hagerty campaign spokeswoman Abigail Sigler said "as Election Day quickly approaches, we are focused on sharing Bill's positive conservative message with Tennessee voters. They're tired of mandates and being told what to do by the government. Bill trusts the good people of Tennessee to make the right decisions for themselves."
Sethi's campaign did not respond to the Times Free Press on the issue but in a statement to WRCB-TV said, "this event was hosted by Hamilton County GOP, it was not a Dr. Manny event. Dr. Manny and his wife were just guests, and both of them had masks. Bill Hagerty didn't wear a mask either."
Sethi later appeared in Knoxville where he attacked Dr. Anthony Fauci, the federal government's top infectious disease expert, saying he has "had about enough of this guy. I think maybe it's time for the president to bring him into the board room and say, 'You're fired.'"
Asked about Sheriff Hammond's unmasked presence at the Hamilton County event, his spokesman, Matt Lea, said in an email that "sometimes the sheriff wears a mask, sometimes he doesn't It depends on the event or the situation. He did have his temperature taken at the door, and he did sign a waiver along with the other guests at the Lincoln Day Dinner."
Both Hagerty and Sethi have traveled the state and appeared in dozens of settings without wearing masks as have many of their respective supporters. Both men lead in polls in the multi-candidate GOP nomination battle for the seat now held by retiring Republican U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander.
Republican businessman and physician George Flinn, who is spending millions of dollars of his own money on his Senate bid and trailing in the polls, has questioned Hagerty and Sethi's practices, telling Nashville station WKRN, "I cannot imagine why my opponents would continue to want to have events without masks. And I call them out on it. I say it's the wrong thing to do. If you are going to [do] that, you are not a leader."
Rodney Strong, chairman of the Hamilton County Democratic Party, called it "alarming" to see the social media posts showing attendees "failing to follow the widely recommended practices to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Not one person pictured at the local Republican Party's annual fundraiser was wearing a face mask or practicing appropriate social distancing."
Strong said "people are looking to their leaders for answers and directions. It is incumbent on those with leadership responsibilities to be aware of the influence their actions can have."
The images, he said, "show a failure to exercise the leadership that is so desperately needed during this time" and he added the absence of protective measures in the photos "sets exactly the wrong kind of example."
Contact Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-255-0550.
Tennessee's COVID-19 pandemic shifting to smaller metros, rural areas as outbreaks in major cities stabilize