As Chattanooga continues to climb national ranks for COVID-19 spread, Mayor Andy Berke is asking the state for the authority to mandate masks in public and to extend an executive order allowing virtual public meetings.
During a virtual press conference Friday, Berke said he is looking for ways to curtail the spread of the virus as cases and deaths continue to rise in and around the city, landing Chattanooga at No. 2 on The New York Times list of places with the highest average daily growth in the COVID-19 death rate.
"I can't stand seeing us in the spotlight for anything negative," Berke said. "More importantly, though, is what it represents. The particular category that we're highlighted in is number of deaths and that is an extremely sobering statistic. You do not want to be at the top of that list."
But, Berke said, the statistics are just part of the picture, and the Chattanoogans impacted by the virus are more important.
"We've had far too many people pass away and this has involved young people, kids. It's awful," Berke said after retelling the story of a local who lost his mother and teenage brother to the virus just days apart. "It's a reminder of the tremendous toll that COVID-19 is having on our community and our country."
He also noted a growing concern from citizens which is prompting his latest attempts at slowing the spread through policy.
"Over the last few days, more people are asking me about masks, why aren't more people wearing masks, what can be done to compel people to wear masks?" Berke said. "I know that people are worried about it, I understand why they're worried about it, and we should all be taking this very seriously."
With that, Berke said he is looking to see if he has the authority to mandate masks be worn in public, like what other cities, counties and even states have implemented in recent weeks.
"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. "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."
After confusion about what authority the city has over enforcement of COVID protections, Berke says he is unsure if he can mandate masks, but is seeking clarification from Gov. Bill Lee.
"We've been looking into whether we have the authority to do so," Berke said. "We're a city government, we don't have a health department, our powers are further limited by executive order of the governor."
Berke also said that he and other municipal leaders from around the state are urging the governor to extend an executive order allowing public meetings to take place virtually, which is set to expire Wednesday.
"There are all kinds of city institutions that have to meet, and there are lots of people who are at risk because they have underlying health conditions or because of their age," he said. "So two things happen. Number one is, if we have to meet in person and they are unable to show up, that deprives us of the people and their voices. But the second piece is, sometimes it deprives us of a quorum, which means that we can't actually do the business that's necessary."
Berke said that he and other members of the Tennessee Municipal League requested that Lee extend the order, but that capacity restrictions and other precautions are being considered for public meetings if the order expires.
Currently, the Hamilton County Commission is set to meet in person for the first time since March on Wednesday, the day after the order is set to expire. The Chattanooga City Council's first in person meeting would be July 7.
Contact Sarah Grace Taylor at email@example.com or 423-757-6416. Follow her on Twitter @_sarahgtaylor.