This story was updated at 6:45 p.m. on Friday, July 10, 2020, with more information.
For weeks, Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke called for Hamilton County to issue a mask mandate to combat the spread of COVID-19. This week, when county Mayor Jim Coppinger and the health department did exactly that, the city said it would not enforce the mandate.
Now Coppinger is "extremely disappointed" in the city's tack.
The mandate by the Hamilton County Health Department, which has the sole local authority over COVID-19 actions under Gov. Bill Lee's state of emergency executive orders, requires most people in most public situations to wear masks or face coverings and businesses to require compliance from now until Sept. 8.
Those who violate the directive, which can be enforced by police, the sheriff and the health department, can be cited with a Class C misdemeanor and face up to a $50 fine and 30 days in jail.
While both local law enforcement agencies have been clear that their intentions are not to issue gratuitous citations, Chattanooga Police Chief David Roddy took it a step farther, saying his department will not enforce the mandate at all, in an apparent departure from the city's calls for a mandate.
"We absolutely believe in the need to wear your mask. Our numbers are rising on positive test cases, hospitalizations [and] deaths in the county and across our nation. And you will see your Chattanooga police officers working to set that example as well," Roddy said in a video on Facebook late Thursday, hours before the mandate began.
"However, with the mask mandate that will come out tonight, I do not believe that enforcement is the necessary path. So your Chattanooga police officers will not be issuing any citations relative to non-compliance on masks," Roddy said. "We will encourage you, we will educate you and we will hopefully set the example for you, but we will also not issue citations."
"The mandate created a strong possibility of compelling community members to disclose medical conditions to [law enforcement], allows for specific exemptions and raises significant concern over enforcement in marginalized communities," Roddy tweeted Friday. "But above all..WEAR A MASK!"
On Friday, Berke thanked the county for the mandate and backed Roddy's decision, despite Berke's own recent calls for the mandate.
"I do believe that this is a step forward for our community. It's an important piece of how we can keep ourselves, our families and our community safe. We at the city of Chattanooga appreciate the Hamilton County Health Department and Mayor Coppinger for implementing the mandate," Berke said at a virtual news conference on Friday.
Citing the city's similar handling of earlier mandates on closing non-essential business to prevent COVID-19 spread, Berke said education is more important and can negate the need for citations.
"Once we did that, we took an extremely aggressive approach to informing and educating without citation so during the entire time that we were shut down, we did zero citations. And yet there was virtually universal compliance," he said. "Now, I don't know that we're going to get universal compliance with the mask mandate, but the point is that we will see substantial increases in the number of people who are wearing masks, that's going to help our community."
In recent weeks, Berke openly pushed for the authority to issue a mask mandate, noting that asking residents to voluntarily wear face coverings had not worked and later criticizing the state for "pre-empting" his authority on this and other COVID measures.
"I will tell everybody that I believe we should all wear a mask when we're out in public and the voluntary method has so far not been successful in accomplishing that," Berke said in late June. "That's why you're seeing cities across the country taking action, but many of them have different powers in their state than we have."
Later on Friday, Coppinger criticized the city for the approach, calling it "extremely disappointing."
"One of the things that's really been extremely disappointing to me in the last 24 hours is as you well know, Chattanooga was crying out for this for quite some time," Coppinger said during a news conference. "And the fact that the health department and myself were willing to do this as a result of some of the data we were looking at and then to be told that [the city] wouldn't enforce it, again, is very disappointing."
Meanwhile, Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond said this week that, while he will encourage warnings and education whenever possible and will not "harass" individuals about the masks, he won't take citations and subsequent punishment off the table.
"I doubt very seriously it'll come to that, but if a citation is before a magistrate or a judge, that judge will determine what the sentence would be," Hammond said. "If the judge does give a sentence, then we will incarcerate that person for that length of time."
A "No Mask Mandate" protest is scheduled at the Hamilton County Courthouse in Chattanooga on Sunday, and has more than 850 interested participants for the "peaceful protest against government overstep," according to a Facebook event.
When asked about the protest, Coppinger said the sheriff's office is aware of the event.
Contact Sarah Grace Taylor at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6416. Follow her on Twitter @_sarahgtaylor.
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