Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond will not commit to being tested for the coronavirus or enforcing the county's mask mandate after being photographed not wearing a mask at a crowded GOP event last week and questioning the effectiveness of the masks.
Hammond and at least one other official from the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office were photographed maskless at a well-attended Lincoln Day celebration hosted by the Hamilton County Republicans last week. The health department later confirmed that at least one person with an active case of COVID-19 attended the event.
While Hammond was far from the only elected official present, his office is tasked with enforcing a mask mandate by the Hamilton County Health Department. The mandate requires masks be worn at such events, which are generally discouraged because of their potential for exposure.
"We are using an abundance of caution wearing them," Chief Deputy Austin Garrett, who was also photographed maskless at the event, said. "In certain instances we wear them and in others we don't."
Garrett told the Times Free Press that he had not been tested as of Saturday because he is not symptomatic. When asked asked whether the sheriff or any other sheriff's office representatives at the event were tested, planned on being tested or were quarantining due to the known exposure, Hammond said "the sheriff is taking the matter under advisement."
Asked if anyone at the event would be cited for violating the order, Hammond wrote back Thursday, "no."
"My personal thoughts, I'm not convinced the masks are doing that much good," Hammond said in an interview with News Channel 9 earlier in the week, saying that around half of the attendees chose not to wear masks. "My role as sheriff, is the [mayor has] requested this mandate. And I told him that my way of enforcing would be to warn people and actually be reasonable."
When the mandate was first introduced, Hammond said deputies would not seek to make people face the potential jail time and fine associated with violations, but told reporters deputies would enforce it when necessary.
"This is certainly not something [I] would wish to have to do as sheriff, but I think we have to look at the realities of what's happening with this virus," he said. "It's not my intent as sheriff ... to harass people about this. We want to ask them to be safe, we want to talk to folks and give warning to what could happen and hopefully they will comply with it."
Other local Republicans, including County Mayor Jim Coppinger, did not attend the event and expressed concern about the way it was handled.
"I basically just said that I didn't think it was a good idea," said Coppinger, a Republican who says he's foregone other events due to the virus. "This virus will be here for a while. You have to learn to coexist with it. And part of being able to do that is listening when there are directives that are given and there are guidelines that are laid out and very specific about how we can stop it, whether it's at a restaurant or an event, or it's retail or whatever.
"We all need to be trying to protect one another. And I took an oath to protect the citizens of this county to the best of my ability and that's what we're trying to do."
Coppinger added that he doesn't understand why some participants and other citizens are opposed to the masks.
"The reason you wear a mask is to protect other people, not just to protect yourself, because you could be asymptomatic and still spread it," Coppinger explained. "So I still hadn't understood how this has become such a political issue. It is not to infringe on anybody's liberties or rights — no more than wearing a seatbelt or not smoking in a building or anything else. I just don't understand the connection."
Coppinger was previously critical of Chattanooga Police Department Chief David Roddy saying his department would not enforce the mandate the week it came into effect.
Coppinger and the health department will be responsible for determining whether or not to re-up the mask mandate when or before it expires on Sept. 8.
Contact Sarah Grace Taylor at email@example.com or 423-757-6416. Follow her on Twitter @_sarahgtaylor.