Leaders of rural counties across Southeast Tennessee didn't immediately follow suit after Hamilton County's mayor on Monday directed the health department to order residents to wear masks in public.
The Hamilton County mandate started Friday in an effort to stem the rising spread of coronavirus cases.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee signed an order July 3 granting 89 counties the authority to issue local mask requirements if COVID-19 cases spike, after county governments expressed a need for more flexibility to address increases in positive case numbers.
"It's a targeted approach to ensure that our public health response matches the realities on the ground in a given community, and it avoids an ineffective, one-size-fits-all approach," Lee said.
However, despite a growing number of cases in the region, mayors are opting not to use their newfound power to require face masks in public.
In Bradley County, new COVID-19 cases are growing faster than any other county in Southeast Tennessee for the size of its population. However, the mayor said he has no plans to require citizens to wear face masks.
Over the past week, Bradley County averaged 38.8 new cases per 100,000 residents compared to neighboring Hamilton County, which has the second highest growth rate of new cases per its population size in the region, with an average of 18.4 new cases per day per 100,000 people.
No mask mandates
While there are no mask mandates among surrounding rural counties, wearing a mask remains a very strong recommendation, and rural leaders, including a city mayor who has tested positive for COVID-19, urge mask use and remind everyone there are other guidelines to follow as part of the coronavirus battle plan, too.
"I am not mandating it for the citizens of Bradley County, however, we are strongly encouraging, strongly recommending, that masks be worn at all times in public," Bradley County Mayor D. Gary Davis said this week of his remarks to Bradley County commissioners last Monday.
"In addition to masks, I reminded everyone of all of the guidelines — washing of hands, hand sanitizer, the 6-foot [distancing] rule, avoiding crowds and the masks," Davis said, noting visitors must wear a mask to enter county offices. "All those guidelines together is what's going to get this down. Right now, we're just talking about masks, and we're forgetting the 6-foot rule, forgetting the crowds and forgetting the hand sanitizer and all those things.
"It's not any one of those, it's all of those together," Davis said.
"I've read all the arguments both ways and I understand both sides and both sides have some good points, I will admit. But at the same time, it may not help, but it can't hurt, so please do it," Davis said.
For Kevin Brooks, the mayor of Bradley County's seat of Cleveland, COVID-19 is a stark reality with his recent diagnosis of double pneumonia followed by a secondary diagnosis of the coronavirus.
"I am making this statement to ask everyone to wear a mask when in public," Brooks said in a statement issued Wednesday thanking his supporters and calling for everyone to take the recommended precautions. "If not for me, then do it for your family and your loved ones. This is a very dangerous disease. And we can slow this local increase and spread.
"I am a rule follower. I am a hand-washer. I am a hand-sanitizer. I am a social distancer," Brooks said. "Alone, these actions were not enough. We also need to add wearing masks in public areas."
In his statement, Brooks urged, "Don't wait to be asked, wear a mask."
Recent case spikes
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta says a face covering can protect the wearer and others from getting the virus, and notes masks are most effective when widely used in public. But it's the idea of making mask wearing a rule that rural counties resist.
"McMinn County will join the vast majority of Tennessee counties in exercising the recommendation rather than the requirement provision of Executive Order 54," McMinn County Mayor John Gentry said in a statement issued Wednesday. Gentry said he was glad Lee left the decision to county leaders.
McMinn's LifeCare Center of Athens, Tennessee, by mid-May tallied a dozen deaths from the virus among 120 confirmed cases. Two more deaths were reported between mid-May and early June when LifeCare officials reported the facility was free of the virus.
Gentry said McMinn County residents "acted responsibly" during the pandemic and that now there are fewer than 80 active COVID-19 cases in the county of around 55,000.
"The positive rate remains low at less than 5% of those tested, and when the outbreak at LifeCare Center is removed from those numbers, the positive rate of tested individuals drops to just 3%," Gentry said.
"While we do believe the use of masks, social distancing and good hygiene practices are effective in reducing the spread of the virus, we do not believe that responsible behavior has to be mandated to our citizens," he said. Gentry said the executive order's "numerous exceptions" is more reason not to ask law enforcement to "enforce an unenforceable regulation."
RURAL REGION CASES
Bledsoe: 625 cases, 5 hospitalizations, 1 death, 4,479 tests, 3,843 negative labs, 615 recovered
Bradley: 868 cases, 44 hospitalizations, 4 deaths, 8,770 tests, 7,768 negative labs, 464 recovered
Coffee: 133 cases, 6 hospitalizations, 0 deaths, 5,041 tests, 4,870 negative labs, 98 recovered
Franklin: 102 cases, 8 hospitalizations, 3 deaths, 3,542 tests, 3,412 negative labs, 65 recovered
Grundy: 62 cases, 10 hospitalizations, 2 deaths, 1,050 tests, 978 negative labs, 50 recovered
Marion: 88 cases, 13 hospitalizations, 4 deaths, 2,083 tests, 1,979 negative labs, 54 recovered
McMinn: 253 cases, 28 hospitalizations, 18 deaths, 5,137 tests, 4,823 negative labs, 174 recovered
Meigs: 35 cases, 4 hospitalizations, 0 deaths, 1,075 tests, 1,026 negative labs, 27 recovered
Polk: 49 cases, 1 hospitalizations, 0 deaths, 1,193 tests, 1,140 negative labs, 35 recovered
Rhea: 294 cases, 7 hospitalizations, 0 deaths, 3,475 tests, 3,147 negative labs, 249 recovered
Sequatchie: 43 cases, 2 hospitalizations, 0 deaths, 1,831 tests, 1,775 negative labs, 28 recovered
Tennessee: 57,153 cases, 3,088 hospitalizations, 710 deaths, 972,276 tests, 905,208 negative labs, 33,609 recovered
Source: Tennessee Department of Health, confirmed as of 3 p.m. Thursday, July 9, 2020.
Land of the free
McMinn, Polk and Bradley counties are in the 10th Judicial District, where Attorney General Steve Crump has said such rules are unconstitutional and can't be prosecuted.
"We will continue to trust the judgment of individuals and private business owners when making decisions about their health and safety," Gentry said, noting free masks are available at the local health department. "The use of masks is strongly recommended for those who are in close proximity to those who are most vulnerable to the virus, including the elderly and those who are immunocompromised."
In Bledsoe County, where an outbreak of COVID-19 cases among state inmates at Bledsoe County Correctional Complex drove case numbers to a nationally noted late-April spike in the number of cases per 100,000, County Mayor Gregg Ridley said in a statement posted by the county's Emergency Management Agency that he encouraged everyone to don a mask in public but would not make it mandatory. The statement noted all 26 Bledsoe residents with confirmed cases outside the prison had recovered.
Franklin County Mayor David Alexander described the benefits of mask wearing at length in an explanatory video he posted on his office's social media page, but when it comes to an enforceable rule he said, "We're in the land of the free, and as far as this county mayor is concerned, we shall remain so."
Officials in Coffee, Grundy, Meigs and Polk counties similarly say there'll be no mask mandates in those counties, while they continue to urge their use.
In Marion County, where a curfew was imposed in response to the virus back in April, County Mayor David Jackson said there's no need to mandate masks.
"We have only 24 active cases in Marion County out of 28,000 people," Jackson said. The curfew kept cases steady at 29 [for] more than five weeks, he said, before cases ticked upward again in mid-May.
For now, the decision will be up to the individual resident and their own assessment of risk, Jackson said.
Rhea County Executive George Thacker also said there would be no mandate there, but, like his counterparts, he still thinks following COVID-19 guidelines is a good idea. In April, Rhea County had a sudden 14-fold spike in positive cases stemming from an outbreak among migrant workers on a local farm, which caused an initial jump from 13 cases to almost 200. The workers were asymptomatic.
"We're really encouraging people to wear a mask when they're out in public," Thacker said this week. It's a mantra he's maintained since April's local spike.
Perspective from a loss
Sequatchie County is another among the counties that have no plans for a mask mandate, but for Sequatchie County Executive Keith Cartwright, the discussion around preventing deadly illnesses plucks a heartstring.
In October 2009, the swine flu virus suddenly claimed the life of Cartwright's 12-year-old daughter, Halle Jean Cartwright.
"She'd been feeling run down. We saw her play volleyball the night before — that was on a Thursday night — then Friday, by 10 o'clock that night, she was gone," Cartwright said.
The family didn't even get the diagnosis until months later in February 2010. Halle's was the first documented case of swine flu in Middle Tennessee, where she was living in Murfreesboro, he said.
Cartwright wishes the same medical technology that exists today was available back when his daughter contracted the flu virus. He said that had any forewarning been available of Halle's swine flu exposure, who knows how the outcome might have changed.
So when it comes to prevention, Cartwright said he "takes it seriously," and says anyone with the chance to make themselves and others safer should take it.
"Those are individual rights in my view. But I wear a mask in public, especially when I'm around people," Cartwright said.
"For God's sake, if you love your people and respect your people, wear a mask," he said. "It's a love and respect thing to me."
The novel coronavirus for most people causes mild or moderate symptoms, like a fever and cough that clears up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and those with other health problems, the coronavirus can cause more severe illness and can even be fatal.
Staff writer Elizabeth Fite contributed to this story.
Contact Ben Benton at email@example.com or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton or at www.facebook.com/benbenton1.