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This article was updated with more information at 7:41 p.m. on Friday, July 3, 2020.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee signed an executive order late Friday afternoon allowing Tennessee's 89 smallest counties to decide for themselves whether to issue mask mandates in response to a significant rise in COVID-19 cases, and the Hamilton County Health Department reported three additional deaths from COVID-19.

Hamilton County is one of six of Tennessee's largest counties, which have their own locally run health departments and therefore already have the authority to decide on mask mandates amid the global pandemic. Mayor Jim Coppinger has not yet done so.

"While our densely populated urban areas continue to have the highest COVID-19 case rates, our local governments expressed a need for greater flexibility in addressing a rise in cases and that includes setting stronger expectations around masks," Lee said in a statement. "This targeted approach ensures we protect both lives and livelihoods and safely keep our economy open in Tennessee. We encourage every Tennessean across the state to use a face covering or mask, make sure to socially distance and wash hands frequently."

The governor's order came a few hours after the Hamilton County Health Department reported the three new coronavirus-related deaths, bringing the county's total to 33.

The deaths included a Black woman over the age of 81, a man between 71 and 80 whose race/ethnicity was not yet confirmed and a Black man between the ages of 51 and 60. All three had underlying health conditions, according to the Health Department.

"Our thoughts and prayers go out to these families," Health Department Administrator Becky Barnes said. "We want to encourage our community to practice social distancing and wear masks in public. Community spread is occurring, and the disease is very active in our community."

Also Friday, the Health Department warned of the potential for exposure to the coronavirus at the Hamilton County Courthouse at 625 Georgia Ave. from June 25 to July 2.

"Case investigations have revealed that positive cases were in the courthouse during their infectious period during the June 25 to July 2 timeframe," according to a Friday news release. "It is recommended that anyone who was at the Courthouse during any of these days be tested for COVID-19 and monitor their symptoms."

The agency suggested people visit bit.ly/COVIDsigns for a list of symptoms, such as fever or chills, cough and shortness of breath.

"We can't stress enough how vital it is to stay at home if you are sick," Barnes said. "If you are having any symptoms or you have tested positive, stay home, do not go out into public."

Free Health Department testing opportunities are available Monday-Sunday, July 6-12 from 7-11 a.m. at East Lake Academy. The Hamilton County Health Department, in partnership with the Tennessee National Guard, will offer free COVID-19 testing at East Lake Courts on Monday, July 6 from 11 a.m.-3 p.m. This is a walk-up testing event, but the public may drive to the event, park, and walk in. No appointment is needed.

Health Department testing sites are closed Saturday and Sunday for the holiday weekend.

Testing continues to be robust in Hamilton County, the release states. This week, from Monday to Friday, the Health Department tested 3,299 people at the county's Brainerd High School testing site.

Contact Colin M. Stewart at cstewart@timesfreepress.com.

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