Chattanooga will require masks or face coverings be worn in city buildings when facilities reopen Monday, while Hamilton County considers a wider mandate and the governor considers mask mandate authority.
While Mayor Andy Berke lacks authority to mandate masks be worn in public to prevent the spread of COVID-19 — as other states, cities and counties have done throughout the country — Chattanooga will require face masks within city facilities and continue to advocate against preemptive rules that restrict city authority.
"Whilebuildings are reopening to the public this city will require those visiting to wear a mask," Communications Director Richel Albright said Thursday as the city prepared to open but require face coverings in City Hall, development resource center, libraries and other locations starting Monday.
According to Albright, libraries are only opening for in-person computer usage (at limited capacity). Book pickup and drop-off will remain curbside.
When a citizen asked Berke how to help promote a mask mandate in the city during a Facebook Live discussion on Thursday, Berke said that he can't impose one because of the governor's decision to strip that authority from most localities.
"Significant restrictions have been put on any city mayor's authority and any city's authority," Berke said, referencing changes by Gov. Bill Lee in late April which, according to the attorney general, established that without "express delegation of power by the governor, local governmental entities may not take actions that are either more restrictive or less restrictive with respect to the subjects addressed in the governor's executive orders governing the state's emergency response to COVID-19."
With executive order 38 — extended last week by executive order 50 — strongly urging but not requiring masks, the governor has technically addressed that as an emergency COVID-19 issue, and localities therefore cannot add or remove related restrictions.
Berke went on to condemn what he considers preemptive measures by Lee.
"One of the things that I'm always against in any context is what they call preemption, and what preemption just means is it's the state, or some other government, telling another government, you can't do what you want to do in this area, you have to listen and do whatever we want," Berke said.
"Several weeks ago, the state preempted us from making a lot of decisions...we were barred from this," he added. "So we take that preemption very seriously, we understand that our powers have been restricted."
The governor said Monday that only the six Tennessee counties with independent health departments, including Hamilton County, have the authority to make such decisions.
Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger responded by saying that he would "strongly consider" a mandate in the county, but has not committed to any such action.
"I know that Mayor Coppinger has been talking about a mandate for Hamilton County. I would encourage people to reach out and to show your support for that to the county mayor," Berke said.
While Lee said at a news conference on Wednesday that his office was trying to have a resolution on that question soon, the governor's office clarified Thursday that his comments were in response to other counties asking for permission and would not likely affect Chattanooga.
"He was speaking in the context of county mayors with a state-run health department (like Rutherford or Sevier), and whether we can give those health departments the authority to take stricter measures than the state, (i.e. mandatory masks)," spokesperson Gillum Ferguson told the Times Free Press on Thursday. "It's ultimately a legal issue that we're working through now and hope to have resolved very soon."
Contact Sarah Grace Taylor at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6416. Follow her on Twitter @_sarahgtaylor.