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Staff photo by Elizabeth Fite / This photo shows one of the masks distributed by Gov. Bill Lee's administration that was made Renfro Corp., which has a facility in Cleveland, Tennessee.

Chattanooga officials have begun distributing the city's stock of 20,000 face masks they received in May in order to supply residents with needed personal protection as the coronavirus pandemic continues to spread locally.

Distribution of the free face masks, which were made by the sock manufacturer Renfro Corp., was halted after a television station in Nashville questioned whether an antimicrobial chemical used to treat the fabric in the masks was safe.

Health officials in Hamilton, Davidson and Shelby counties said last week they would begin handing the masks out again after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency deemed them safe. But on Friday, Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke said he was still reviewing the EPA's findings and at the time did not have a plan to distribute the masks.

"There was some confusion about if those were safe. We held off on distributing those for that purpose. We wanted to make sure we had absolute confidence, from a variety of sources, that those were going to be safe and healthy before we distributed those," Kerry Hayes, Berke's chief of staff, said during a media briefing Tuesday.

Hayes said Tuesday that distribution had resumed, citing the EPA's findings, which said the chemical in the masks was different from a similarly named toxic pesticide, and that the masks are safe for humans to wear.

"I've been wearing one. The mayor has been wearing one. They are in circulation. We are distributing them," Hayes said, adding that the masks have already been handed out in some neighborhoods, and the mayor's office is continuing to develop a distribution plan for the remaining masks.

When the masks initially arrived, Berke said the main priority was to make sure that members of the Hispanic community — who have been hit especially hard by the coronavirus locally — had access to free face masks.

However, any group that may want to secure a couple hundred or a thousand facemasks can send an email to mayor@chattanooga.gov, Hayes said.

"We'll make sure you get some as soon as possible," he said.

Contact Elizabeth Fite at efite@timesfreepress.com.

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