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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Mayor Tim Kelly waves as he approaches City Hall after the One Chattanooga inauguration ceremony at the Tivoli Theatre on Monday, April 19, 2021 in Chattanooga, Tenn. Tim Kelly was sworn in as the 66th mayor of Chattanooga.

Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly lifted city mask and social distancing requirements on Friday for fully-vaccinated citizens.

In an executive order signed Friday afternoon, Kelly followed recent guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, allowing fully-vaccinated people in city buildings to go without a face mask or social distancing for the first time in over a year.

"What it tells us for certain — again this is just echoing CDC guidelines —is that vaccines work, and that the guidelines, again, are very, very simple: Get vaccinated, or wear a mask. It's your choice," Kelly said at a news conference on Friday. "Unfortunately, vaccination rates here are not quite yet to 40%, so we have some real work to do and we're having some creative conversations about how to get that rate north.

"But it's really that simple, and we're excited," Kelly said, encouraging people to still carry masks and be "completely tolerant" of those still wearing them.

Kelly said the city will operate on the "honor system," because it would not be practical to try to verify that maskless citizens have been vaccinated. He also said the city is working to encourage vaccinations since the city and state's vaccination rates have plateaued in recent weeks.

Kelly said he is working with other mayors across the state to find ways to promote vaccines, and that he likes the idea of "gamefying" or incentivizing vaccines, citing a lottery for vaccinated individuals in another state.

"We need to try some different strategies because I've talked to other mayors around the state, and everybody's frozen at this level," he said, warning about the potential of an outbreak from a variant of the virus. "Look, we need to have some dramatic increases before we can really get through this."

Until the vaccination rates get better, the city is still only issuing special events permits on a limited basis.

"We are, to some extent, I think, whistling past the graveyard if we don't get that rate up before some variant pops up and gets past the goalie, as it were," he said.

(READ MORE: Chattanooga mayor lifts restrictions on softball fields, amends COVID-19 order to follow CDC guidelines)

In the meantime, other restrictions outlined in last week's executive order remain in place, including the closure of the city's Youth and Family Development Centers, which has turned into an urgent staffing matter.

"We are working as hard as possible. We've had a couple of emergency meetings today to get YFD centers open again. Very frankly, that is a personnel shortage more than a COVID consideration," he said. "I don't have to tell you what the labor market is like right now, and so we are working very hard to staff back up in time for school to be out."

The lifting of restrictions comes two weeks after Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger lifted a 10-month mask mandate across the county and is the latest in a string of orders from Kelly lifting restrictions during his first month in office.

Contact Sarah Grace Taylor at staylor@timesfreepress.comor 423-757-6416. Follow her on Twitter @_sarahgtaylor.

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