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Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / From left, Gary Shockley, store manager of the MurMaid Mattress store on Lee Highway, helps customer Verlon Carrell, of Higdon, Alabama, with picking out a mattress. Local businesses are gearing up to become mask mandate enforcers, as Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger's executive order requires them to post signs and ensure their customers are masked.

Signs are going up and business owners are bracing for awkward conversations with customers who may not want to wear masks under an executive order that requires face coverings in most public places in Hamilton County beginning Friday.

"In a way, it's clear what the county's asking, and in a way there are so many exceptions that what's not clear is exactly how we interface with our customers," said Tom Glenn, president of Elder's Ace Hardware, which has 22 stores, including eight in Hamilton County. "We anticipate that some customers will decline, and that's where we run into complications."

Multiple exceptions to the mask mandate create potentially tough scenarios for front-line folks who might have to ask a customer to mask up, Glenn said. The executive order exempts people with a range of medical conditions and allows wiggle room in specific scenarios where it's possible to maintain social distance.

(READ MORE: What you need to know about Hamilton County's mask mandate during the COVID-19 pandemic.)

He also cited complications with federal laws governing medical privacy and rights for people with disabilities.

"We're in kind of a no-win situation at that point because if we comply with one we violate the others," Glenn said. "And we don't have attorneys working in our stores."

His employees are already required to wear masks and undergo health screenings including temperature checks, Glenn said. The mandate requiring customers to wear masks is a good thing despite the challenges because it simplifies and standardizes expectations, he said.

"Personally, I'm in favor of it," Glenn said. "I think it's the right thing to do."

MurMaid Mattress owner Roger Pickett said he has been asking employees to mirror customers' preferences — to wear a mask if the customer did, and not to wear one if they didn't. But now the rules are clear, he said.

"Personally, I'm very glad they are doing that so it's not a question of political persuasion, it's the rule," said Pickett, who has 11 MurMaid showrooms in Hamilton County.

From the Hamilton County executive order mandating masks from July 10 to Sept. 8:

-Businesses shall not allow anyone to enter or remain in their establishment unless they are wearing a facial covering.

-No business shall serve anyone without a facial cover unless seated and eating or drinking consumables served by the establishment.

-Any business failing to enforce this directive or person refusing to leave an establishment when requested due to no facial covering will be subject to civil citations for their violation of this directive as well as criminal sanctions.

-All businesses shall post signage in a place visible to those entering to remind customers of this requirement. Sample wording will be provided in digital format by the Hamilton County Health Department.

-Violations of this directive by businesses and/or individuals shall be punishable by citation issued by the Hamilton County Health Department and/or criminally by local law enforcement as a Class C misdemeanor.

Only about 20% of customers have been showing up wearing masks recently, said Pickett, whose stores have seen record sales in the last couple of months as people redirect their energy and money into making their homes more comfortable.

Pickett said he hopes his employees won't be forced into confrontations with customers who don't want to don masks, though he knows the mandate could lead to some fraught interactions.

"I sure hope people will be compliant with the rule," he said. "I'm shocked at the negativity. I mean, just do it."

Tennesseans are among the least likely in the United States to wear face coverings, according to a report released in June. In Knox County, where Glenn has six Ace Hardware stores, a mask requirement took effect last week. There was one confrontation between customers that blew over quickly, but the transition has been otherwise pretty smooth, he said.

That doesn't mean, Glenn added, that anything is easy these days for front-line retail employees.

"This is the next wave of some unhappiness where folks who don't want to be told what to do are very sensitive, just like the people who want to be safe will be sensitive," Glenn said. "It really puts the pressure on our people."

Home Depot doesn't ask employees to approach customers about mask mandates in communities that have them, opting instead for signage and public announcements to make the expectation clear, said spokeswoman Christina Cornell.

"We have not required stores to police local mandates because it can be dangerous to put our associates in that position," she said.

On Monday, the Retail Industry Leaders Association asked that governors across the country work together to develop a consistent requirement that people wear masks when shopping or in public spaces.

(READ MORE: In your face: Can the government make you wear a mask?)

"The patchwork of local mandates many retailers faced earlier this year made it incredibly difficult to focus on implementing the right safety protocols," retail leaders wrote in a letter to the National Governors Association. "Conflicting orders and guidelines from counties and municipalities create confusion for employees and customers and ultimately leads to conflict."

Some national chains already mandate masks for customers, including Costco and Verizon, according to the National Retail Federation. Retail employees are on the front lines of the crisis, balancing the need to supply essential goods and protect themselves and customers, wrote the Retail Industry Leaders Association in its letter to governors.

"Despite compliance from the majority of Americans, retailers are alarmed with the instances of hostility and violence front-line employees are experiencing by a vocal minority of customers who are under the misguided impression that wearing a mask is a violation of their civil liberties."

In addition to exempting people with specific health conditions, Hamilton County's executive order has layers of other nuances. For example, people who work in a non-public setting who can maintain social distance from their colleagues don't have to wear masks, but they do have to keep them handy and use them when they encounter coworkers.

(READ MORE: Hamilton County issues face mask mandate, punishable by $50 fine, as COVID-19 cases continue to increase)

While masks will be required in most public situations, Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond has said that sheriff's deputies will not "harass" residents not wearing them and will issue warnings when possible.

Hammond said deputies, who will be wearing masks in most circumstances, will not be responding to every call of someone not wearing a mask or imposing citations on every offender because the goal is safety, not sending people to jail.

Contact Mary Fortune at mfortune@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6653. Follow her on Twitter at @maryfortune.

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Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / A sign on the door of the MurMaid Mattress location on Lee Highway asks patrons to wear a mask. Local businesses are gearing up to become mask mandate enforcers, as Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger's executive order requires them to post signs and ensure their customers are masked.
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