This story was updated at 6:01 p.m. on Friday, July 17, 2020, with more information.
After a week of back and forth between the city of Chattanooga and Hamilton County on the enforcement of county Mayor Jim Coppinger's mask mandate, the city announced Friday morning that it will assist the county health department in issuing citations for violations.
The city will lend two code enforcement workers from the Department of Economic and Community Development to assist the health department in issuing citations for businesses that are "egregiously" out of compliance, according to a news release issued Friday.
"We want to see full compliance with this mandate so we can contain the spread of this virus as quickly as possible," city Mayor Andy Berke said in the release. "Keeping up with complaints for businesses in the county is going to be a lot of work, and we're happy to help the health department any way we can, which is why we're making these resources available."
The mandate by the health department, which has the sole local authority over COVID-19 actions under Gov. Bill Lee's state of emergency executive orders, went into effect July 10 and 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 can be cited with a Class C misdemeanor and face up to a $50 fine and 30 days in jail.
While Berke had called for weeks for Hamilton County to issue a mask mandate to combat the spread of COVID-19, once the mandate went into place, Chattanooga Police Chief David Roddy said that his officers would not enforce the mandate and would focus instead on educating the public. Roddy's stance prompted Coppinger to say he was "extremely disappointed" in the city's tack.
Berke said during a media call on Friday that he understood Coppinger's sentiment, and the city and county have been working together throughout the week to find a solution should they get to the point that a citation is needed. They both agreed on the code enforcement mechanism.
"I've been a proponent of the mask mandate for quite a while now, and what we want is to get to a solution that keeps the people of our community as safe as possible," Berke said. "That's really my only goal."
Citations would be driven by citizen complaints to the Hamilton County Health Department about businesses who are not enforcing the mandate.
"If we hear consistently, again and again, that some business is not in compliance through phone calls to the health department, then we may have no choice but to issue a citation," Berke said.
"We're gonna give them every chance to to work with us and to be in compliance with the mandate, so if you are writing citations, it's a last resort. I think that the county sees that as well. The goal is to keep people safe, not to punish people," he said.
Code enforcement inspectors are written into the city charter and have powers as special police officers to inspect structures within the city and impose fees and issue citations if out of compliance, according to the release. The city's code enforcement inspectors only have jurisdiction within the Chattanooga city limits.
Dean Flener, a spokesman for Gov. Bill Lee's coronavirus unified command group, said in an email that state law (primarily T.C.A. § 58-2-107) vests in the governor broad emergency management authority, including taking measures concerning the conduct of civilians and "the ability to delegate emergency responsibilities and powers as he deems prudent."
During a news conference on Tuesday, Lee spoke about whether he would consider issuing a statewide mask mandate.
"I think a targeted approach is the best way to do this. There are places in our state that have significant spread and then there are places in our state that don't. A one-size-fits-all approach to this, in our view, is not the best approach," Lee said. "We believe that that buy-in is more important and sometimes mandates can actually be counterproductive to buy-in, so that's why we think targeted approaches are the best."
Contact Elizabeth Fite at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @ecfite.