With Hamilton County's now 4-month-old mask mandate set to expire this week, County Mayor Jim Coppinger is considering extended regulations, despite his own political beliefs and fractured citizen feedback.
In a Times Free Press survey of 267 Hamilton County voters in the November general election, about half of the citizens interviewed said they agree with the degree of regulation in the county to prevent the virus.
"I think people are mostly getting used to living with this virus, which is a really positive thing to see," Coppinger said Thursday, about a week before the county's mask mandate is up for expiration. "There are some people letting their guard down, which we really don't want to see. But overall, most people are learning to live with it."
Coppinger, who has worked in local government for most of his life, including about a decade as Hamilton County mayor, has spent the majority of the year focused on his most difficult task yet: regulating the county's businesses and more than 350,000 residents throughout the pandemic.
"I would say this [decision to mandate wearing masks] was probably the most controversial, but I think it was also one of the most misunderstood," he said. "So much information is misrepresented on social media. We don't want to go back to shutting down businesses, so wearing masks is critical to keeping our economy open during this pandemic."
And the remaining half of survey respondents agreed, reflecting a dichotomy with some (35.7) who want to see further regulations and others (9.7%) who think the county has gone too far.
How the survey was conducted
The survey results are based upon responses from 267 voters from across Hamilton County who were interviewed by staffers from the Times Free Press during early voting and on Election Day, Nov. 3, at the polls. Voters were sampled during early voting at all four voting sites in the county and on Election Day at 18 voting precincts selected to represent the county as a whole.
And now, with the most recent 45-day extension of the county mask mandate set to expire and experts suggesting even stronger local regulations, Coppinger has to weigh personal beliefs, feedback and decide whether to renew the mandate, which if extended could last though the end of the year.
During the first peak of the pandemic in the late spring, Coppinger differed from Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke, a Democrat who favored longer, stronger regulations on businesses and gatherings to curtail the spread of the virus while Coppinger followed the lead of Republican Gov. Bill Lee, who allowed for a gradual return to normal for most, with minimal regulations.
"We want to help the people that are exposed and that have the virus, but at the same time, the other people that want to get out and try to feed their families, or are going back to work or back to church, or those types of things are in the majority So what we've got to do is educate them how to continue to be in the majority," Coppinger said in April, after agreeing to loosening restrictions on businesses. "But people have personal responsibility."
When cases, hospitalizations and deaths spiked in late summer, landing Hamilton County on national hot spot lists, Coppinger implemented a countywide mask mandate, requiring face coverings in nearly all public situations with the possibility of a $50 fine and jail time for violations.
"I see it every day and something has to give," he said Thursday. "We would have more people sick [without a mandate] and we would have more people die, and people can debate that with me all day long."
"But this is what it takes to stop the virus."
Coppinger's decision spurred immediate backlash and even protests from citizens who feel the regulation violates their rights.
"In the beginning I was getting constant emails, and there were plenty of people upset about [the mask mandate], of course," Coppinger, who said he was getting as many as 60 emails per day about the mandate, said.
"Again it's temporary, but it looks like government is being intrusive in your life and your liberties and your freedoms, and that's not it at all," he said. "What we're saying is we have got to minimize this in our community to the best of our ability for a period of time until, you know, we can get this under control."
Coppinger, one of few Republicans to get behind a mask mandate, said the decision even conflicts with his own preferences.
"It's against my thought process, about what I am personally for and against. I'm against regulations, but there's no other way," Coppinger said Thursday. "I mean I don't like government getting involved, and it appears that I'm a big government regulations guy and it's just not me."
While the emails and active criticism have quieted down as the mandate, originally set to expire in September, has been renewed, critics still remain.
According to the voter survey, 67% of respondents supported a mask mandate as of Nov. 3, but another 27.7% were opposed, even four months into the local mandate.
"What's hard about it is the perception," Coppinger said, recognizing the unpopularity of mask mandates among Republican leaders. "I am not a fan of government regulations, I am not a fan of big government. I would call myself a fiscal conservative. And none of this looks that way."
"But I took an oath to do what's best for this county. Not for me, or any group of people or particularly any political lines," he said.
"And I happen to be the person who's in the position to make those decisions."
Coppinger's current mandate is set to expire Sunday, unless it is extended this week.
Contact Sarah Grace Taylor at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6416. Follow her on Twitter @_sarahgtaylor.