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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. Mayor Coppinger said people in Hamilton County will be required to wear a mask or face covering in public starting Friday. 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.

Thank you, Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger, for finally ordering masks to slow and hopefully halt the spread of COVID-19 in Hamilton County starting Friday.

Though the decision is weeks and months overdue and should begin today, Hamilton County already is safer because of it: The increased urgency of local officials alone will get some people's attention and prompt them to obtain, and wear, masks.

Even better, however, is the urgent fact that this executive order from the Hamilton County Health Department, at Coppinger's direction, comes with teeth. Starting Friday, citizens who fail to cover their faces could be accused of a Class C misdemeanor offense, with penalties ranging from a $50 fine to 30 days in jail.

And no, it is neither unconstitutional nor partisan — no more so than requiring driving adults to pass a driving test and carry a driver's license.

Now it is Gov. Bill Lee's turn to wise up, and more than 60 critical care physicians from across Tennessee told him so Monday.

Expressing their frustration over increasing COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, a number of the doctors called in a video conference for Lee to issue a statewide face mask mandate, enforce safety guidelines and allow all mayors to make public health decisions in their counties and cities.

"We must issue a state mask requirement," said Dr. Aaron Milstone, a pulmonologist now treating COVID-19 patients. "When people refuse to wear masks, it does not protect their liberty. This selfishness is a threat to the liberty of everyone else. When people ignore speed limits and drive recklessly, they are fined, because they are endangering others. When people drunk drive, they are fined as well, because they are endangering others. In this health crisis, not wearing a mask and not staying apart endangers the lives of countless others and prolongs the health crisis."

Although wearing and requiring masks is pure common sense, Hamilton County's order came only after weeks of collaborating with local health officials and monitoring data, which has shown steady increases in active cases, hospitalizations and ICU use.

Even more ridiculous than that wasted time, some Tennessee cities such as Chattanooga were prohibited from instituting their own mask orders. Why? Because Lee's emergency executive "trust" order, the Tennessee Pledge that outlined "voluntary" safety guidelines, put the decision in the hands of county mayors like Coppinger who were in charge of county health departments. And Coppinger, like Lee, was in a hurry for businesses to reopen. Without business, those tax coffers dwindle.

Thus, in early May when we "reopened" we had 163 cases. But by mid-June we had 2,000 cases, forcing local officials to acknowledge the spike was due at least in part to "businesses that have been open, businesses that are reopening [and] employees bringing the virus to newly opened sites." And now, one week into July, we're pushing 3,000 cases.

Tennessee residents have been among the least likely people in the United States to wear face coverings, with only 10% to 20% of citizens reporting that they always wore a face cover in public, according to a June report.

In some ways, it's been hard to blame them. After all, most of our local officials put their heads in the sand, telling us instead how safe it was to reopen, reopen, reopen. Even now, with cases in the South spiraling out of control, state and federal lawmakers are still pushing full steam ahead to open schools and colleges in the fall.

And on Monday, Hamilton County became the last of the state's four largest counties to implement the mask mandate. The last.

Apparently we had to wait for all those July 4th weekend cash registers to make that cha-ching sound.

According to our new mandate, the masks or facial coverings must be worn over the mouth and nose "at all times when indoors in all public and private buildings and when outdoors," when social distancing is not possible, through Sept. 8.

While the executive order lists a number of exceptions to the order including children under 12, people with certain existing respiratory conditions, people with mental or hearing challenges and all people in certain occasions, generally people indoors must wear coverings unless in a house of worship that does not require them, seated at a restaurant for dining or a select few other private occasions. People in their homes are generally exempt, but not in the common areas of apartments and condo complexes.

If you think that inhibits our freedoms, that's too bad.

It's not as inhibiting as ventilators. Or quarantines. Or death.

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