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Unless you were going into surgery or cleaning someone's teeth on Thursday, you were not required to put on a mask in Hamilton County.

Ten months after a countywide mask mandate was ordered to help stave off the coronavirus pandemic, it expired.

Are we through this more-than-a-year-long nightmare? No, we're not.

Are we getting there? It sure seems so.

Feels like we need a caveat here. Get vaccinated. If you're feeling poorly, get checked and quarantine at home until you know for sure you do not have COVID-19. The numbers tell us our fellow county residents are still contracting the virus, but hospitalizations are down. You can feel progress. Slowly.

With that progress, it makes sense to explore expanding our next normal toward what we took for granted, like milling about downtown or at the mall without a face covering.

The decision to issue the mandate was not an easy one for Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger, who like so many of our elected leaders had to wrestle with the best strategy to deal with an unprecedented challenge.

"This was a health crisis, a pandemic, and it was the responsibility of the health department and government to be able to try to minimize the spread," Coppinger said in a news conference earlier this week. "We made the commitment at the time it would be a temporary situation — we weren't going to be in masks forever — but we knew it was really important."

It's a shame the way the masks were politicized early on. In the big picture, I wonder how being required to wear a mask was much different from restaurants around town requiring patrons to wear shirts or shoes. But that's water under the Olgiati now.

Coppinger took a fair share of punishment for his decision. But he is confident that now is an OK time to lift the requirement and to encourage residents to take steps to get back to what used to be a normal normal.

(READ MORE: Tennessee Gov. Lee ends authorization for local mask mandates in 89 counties)

Downtown felt like a normal day in this pandemic phrase. There were a limited number of folks moving about — something that has become commonplace, even downtown, as people work remotely — but a vast majority of them were masked, mandate or no.

Out at Northgate Mall, it was as busy at Old Navy as last Thursday, according to Lindsay Cooksey, one of the store's managers.

"I think it was very similar," she said from behind the counter.

Cooksey, though, said some people have told her ditching the masks now might be premature.

"But I have asked a lot of questions, and most folks feel like it was too soon [to lift the mandate]," she said.

Warren Simpson, a Middle Valley resident who was walking around the Hixson mall without a mask, concurred.

"Got it right here," Simpson said of the mask in his back pocket before entering Northgate and acknowledging that he had received both shots of a COVID-19 vaccine. "But I do think it was a little early [to lift the mandate]."

Maybe it is. Maybe it isn't.

Here's the thing: The mask "mandate" was never truly enforced, which begs the question if it was anything more than peer pressure or as stringent as a Hallmark card. If lifting the mandate generates more confidence among consumers — and especially among travelers and tourists — in the days ahead, then that's a good thing, too, as we look for ways to transition to our next normal.

For what it's worth, across downtown and the Northgate area, most people I saw Thursday morning and afternoon were masked. That, too, is a good thing. For all of us.

But masking up, as of Thursday, was their choice. For their safety.

And if that's what they want to do, then friends, that is how it should be. Whether it's mandated or not.

Contact Jay Greeson at jgreeson@timesfreepress.com.

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