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Staff file photo, C.B. Schmelter / Flanked by Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke, right, and Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger, Gov. Bill Lee speaks during in mid-April in Chattanooga, after violent storms and a tornado tore through eastern Hamilton County and Northwest Georgia even amid a COVID-19 outbreak.

Thank you, Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger, for "considering" a mask mandate as Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee this week extended two emergency executive orders stretching the state's April state of emergency declaration for COVID-19 an additional eight weeks through Aug. 29.

But stop "considering" and just do it.

Especially before the July 4th weekend gets into full swing.

What more do you need to know?

Tennessee, already rising like a rocket with new cases of the novel coronavirus, has set records in the past week, and Chattanooga, where the number of cases rose from 2,174 to 2,428 in seven days, got national attention when it was listed as No. 2 on The New York Times list of "places that could flare up next" — as measured by the highest average daily growth rate of deaths.

Last month, Chattanooga appeared on the newspaper's list for growth in the number of all cases identified, regardless of outcome. The Scenic City was ranked No. 5 and later No. 4 for a time.

Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke already supports a mask mandate in the city and likely would have instituted one weeks ago had Coppinger, with authority over the county health department, not opted to follow the governor and instead rely on "trust" in the "common sense" of "individual (and business) responsibility."

We see where that's gotten us.

Clearly both Coppinger and Lee should have listened to Berke sooner. Mask mandates already have been implemented in Memphis and Nashville over the past week. But a previous more protective plan by Berke was trumped by Coppinger's decision to reopen the county and an earlier Lee executive order specifying that only counties with their own health departments have the authority to issue orders about COVID-19 policies.

But municipalities and counties — including Chattanooga — are seeking ways around the political edicts.

Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon mandated that masks be worn in all city buildings, starting Wednesday. Last week, the Memphis City Council voted to mandate masks within the city, without going through the county's health department. Berke, too, is looking for options if Coppinger or Lee don't come to their senses.

"I will tell everybody that I believe we should all wear a mask when we're out in public, and the voluntary method has so far not been successful in accomplishing that, Berke said at a news conference Friday. "That's why you're seeing cities across the country taking action, but many of them have different powers in their state than we have."

For his part, Coppinger has used the "power of enforcement" — or lack thereof — as justification for inaction, saying he is hesitant to mandate anything without enforcement power. Like Lee, he previously cited trust and the "common sense" of citizens. Did we mention that a recent study found that only about 10 percent of Tennesseans say they wear a mask in public?

"We've always been hopeful that people would comply with our requests as we started reopening things," Coppinger told the Times Free Press on Monday. "We've always been hopeful that people would be respectful of others because you're not only protecting yourself but you're protecting them but we are continuing, as we have for the last several weeks, to see a high percentage of people inside buildings not in compliance."

More likely, Coppinger — and perhaps Lee, too — have simply been hesitant to stir protesters who use President Donald Trump's disdain for masks as a statement of ideology rather than health and safety.

Listen up, Mayor Coppinger and Gov. Lee: Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander issued a statement Tuesday to fight that thinking.

"The stakes are too high" for that, Alexander said as he chaired a Tuesday congressional hearing of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee, adding, "Unfortunately this simple lifesaving practice has become part of a political debate that says: If you're for Trump, you don't wear a mask. If you're against Trump, you do. I have suggested the president should occasionally wear a mask even though there are not many occasions when it is necessary for him to do so. The president has millions of admirers. They would follow his lead. It would help end this political debate. The stakes are too high for it to continue."

Incidentally, in that same congressional hearing, Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious-diseases expert, warned that the U.S. is "going in the wrong direction" with the coronavirus surging. Fauci told senators that some regions — the South being one — are putting the entire country at risk. He said he "would not be surprised if we go up to 100,000" new cases being reported a day. Currently the U.S. has about 40,000 new cases reported a day.

So, Gov. Lee — and especially you, Mayor Coppinger with the authority of your health department — the ball is in your court.

Mandating masks is sure a lot safer and better for tax coffers than sickness and more closures.

Make a choice between a president's abdication of the public's well-being or your responsibility for the health and safety of our state and local citizens.

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