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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Mayor Jim Coppinger replaces his mask after speaking during a press conference at the Hamilton County Health Department's Golley Auditorium on Monday, July 6, 2020 in Chattanooga, Tenn. Mayor Coppinger said that people in Hamilton County will be required to wear a mask or face covering in public starting after midnight on July 10. Citizens who refuse to cover their face could receive a Class C misdemeanor, with penalties ranging from a $50 fine up to 30 days in jail.

Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger on Thursday declined to say whether he will renew the local mask mandate when it expires at the end of this month, as pressure from some residents builds to revoke the requirements that health experts say are key to maintaining progress against the COVID-19 pandemic.

During a Thursday afternoon livestream about COVID-19, Coppinger said he has been getting calls and emails about the mandate after states like Texas and Mississippi revoked their statewide requirements this week. Residents should continue to follow precautions, he said.

Tennessee has never had a statewide mandate but counties have been allowed to impose their own restrictions. Coppinger established the mandate in July and has renewed it several times since. If not renewed, the current mandate will expire on March 31.

Coppinger said people want to end the mandate because of the recent downward trend in new cases and hospitalizations in the county. People need to continue following the precautions, Coppinger said, and he will do what's best for the county with the advice of local medical professionals and business owners.

"We're all anxious to get out of masks because of the progress we're seeing," Coppinger said. "But, again, we just need to bear with it, get these shots in the arms, give opportunities for people to be vaccinated so that we can have a safe community."

Businesses in Hamilton County are basically fully open apart from the mask requirement, Coppinger said. Large gatherings are allowed, such as the state wrestling tournament last weekend, as long as people can socially distance and wear masks when necessary.

When the county mayor announced the mask mandate almost eight months ago, Hamilton County was averaging around 65 new cases a day with 53 people in the hospital. There were less than 3,000 total cases in the community and 36 total deaths.

The area experienced a surge of cases in the winter, which led to the deadliest months of the pandemic to date. At one point in early January, the county was averaging more than 500 new cases a day.

The colder weather forced individuals indoors and gatherings, especially around Thanksgiving, seemed to push widespread transmission of the virus. Contact tracing efforts at the time revealed that most of the transmission was occurring at small, in-home gatherings and family events where masks were not worn.

During the winter surge, rural counties surrounding Chattanooga that do not have mask mandates reported higher per capita case rates than Hamilton County and may have helped drive the local surge.

Since the first weeks of 2021, the county has experienced a downward trend in new cases and hospitalizations. On Thursday, the county was averaging 66 new cases a day over the previous seven days and reported 54 total hospitalizations.

The number of active cases in the county dropped below 1,000 this week for the first time since Oct. 23.

"We never thought we would be bragging about being under a thousand," Coppinger said on Thursday. "But if you look at where we were when we were having several hundred positive cases, new cases, per day [and] several thousand active cases in our community, we've come a long way. We just need to be patient and get a little bit further along."

(READ MORE: Tips for navigating Tennessee's new vaccine eligibility)

Local medical professionals have accompanied Coppinger to discuss the importance of wearing face coverings during previous announcements renewing the mask mandate. Before the arrival of vaccines, face masks and physical distancing were the best available measures to stop the spread of the virus.

Charlie Lathram, chief administrative officer at Galen Medical Group, said it is important to continue following the safety measures. Access to the available vaccines remains limited, and the threat of variants could hurt local and national progress in stopping the spread.

"Don't let your guard down yet," he said. "The biggest message we're trying to get out is, keep with the mask, keep with the social distancing — keep with the things that have been working, and don't let the guard down yet. Practice common sense, talk to your provider, get on the list, get vaccinated as soon as you meet the phase you're in."

Vaccinations continue to expand in Hamilton County and throughout Southeast Tennessee. Starting Monday, people with chronic health conditions will be eligible for doses. The county expects an increase in its weekly shipments from the state, especially as the new Johnson & Johnson vaccine becomes available.

Staff writer Elizabeth Fite contributed to this report.

Contact Wyatt Massey at wmassey@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @news4mass.

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