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Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee puts on his mask during a break in the state budget hearings Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2020, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

Two rural Tennessee county mayors have enacted first-time mask mandates ahead of the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday, citing rising COVID-19 case counts and hospitalizations.

Mayors of Grainger County and Claiborne County in northeast Tennessee are getting considerable community blowback after instituting the mandates.

"Mayor Mike Byrd take your so-called mandate and stick it. Free people live free, you tyrant," one post on the Facebook page of the Town of Bean Station in Grainger County said.

"You cannot make us wear a mask. You do not tell us what to do," a post directed at Mayor Joe Brooks in neighboring Claiborne County said.

Gov. Bill Lee's decision to leave it to mayors to decide whether to enact mask rules has put the squeeze on many Tennessee rural and suburban county leaders, who are being lobbied by nurses, hospital executives and teachers in their communities to enact mask mandates that are being angrily resisted by other constituents who view any pandemic-related mandate as an infringement on their liberty.

There are now about 29 counties — out of Tennessee's 95 — that have enacted mask mandates, a figure based partly on Vanderbilt University Medical Center's data from Nov. 9 and news reports. The state does not track which counties have mandates and which do not. A spokeswoman for the Department of Health said she was not aware of any available source for that information.

In Rutherford County, Mayor Bill Ketron Jr. (a former Republican state senator with a reputation as a staunch conservative who once introduced a bill to explore Tennessee creating its own currency and a bill that would have outlawed Sharia law in Tennessee) called his decision to impose mask rules in the Nashville suburban county among the most difficult of his career in public office.

Ketron enacted a face-covering order shortly after the county landed on the White House's "red zone list" in July. He suspended the rule in September, then reinstated it on Oct. 28. It remains in effect until Dec. 31.

Ketron's decision has proved unpopular among many of the county's residents.

"This year has certainly proved to require several of the toughest decisions I've ever made in leadership," Ketron said via email.

The feedback he has received about the mandate has been mixed, but Ketron said he has tried to find a respectful middle ground even though as many as half of his constituents disagree with him.

"Early on, the split was nearly 50/50. The second time around, it seems that the percentage of those in favor has increased. There have even been instances of those who disagree with the face-covering order calling and expressing their opinion, only to acknowledge their understanding of the decision after further discussion — not agreeing with the decision but at least understanding the choice.

"There was no playbook for this pandemic or its repercussions, no way to plan for something of this nature. We will be writing the playbook one of these days. For now, we continue to monitor the information that changes daily and sometimes multiple times a day, and do what we believe to be best to protect our citizens and visitors from getting or spreading this virus."

In West Tennessee, county and city mayors representing largely rural Republican communities criticized Lee's resistance to enacting a statewide mandate during a video conference call with the governor on Nov. 18, as reported by the Commercial Appeal.

"The governor is going to have to step up because I'm not going to issue a mask mandate if my fellow county mayors aren't going to issue it," Brett Lashlee, mayor of Benton County, said during the call, according to the newspaper. "You're not going to convince rural citizens to embrace a mandate."

Lee continues to stop short of issuing a statewide mask order, and Tennessee remains one of 13 states that has not used mask mandates at a statewide level to control the virus. Lee has said the decision is better left up to local leaders and has encouraged personal responsibility in wearing masks.

As the disease has continued to progress, that has left mayors such as Brooks in Claiborne County — who also initially urged residents to take personal responsibility — switching gears.

"We are a free society, and as such should be able to make our own decisions, and I do not believe it is the role of any government within a free society to dictate the actions of its citizens," Brooks said in July in reference to a county mask mandate.

Last week, Brooks issued a mask mandate and said in a public statement that "difficult and unpopular decisions" sometimes must be made.

"Being county mayor certainly carries a great deal of responsibility, none being more important than the health and well-being of some 33,000 residents — parents, children, grandchildren, grandparents, friends, neighbors, church members, students, teachers, public sector employees, private sector employees and the list goes on and on," Brooks said.

"You are all ultimately my responsibility, and being the leader of Claiborne County is not something anyone should take for granted when looking at the health and well-being of each of our citizens. To that end, difficult and unpopular decisions have to be made to ensure the safety of every Claiborne County [resident] is paramount to the success of our county."

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