With COVID-19 cases and deaths surging, we're both saddened and encouraged to learn that Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger believes "there's no other way" but to consider extending the county's mask mandate set to expire Sunday.
We're saddened that it has come to this because not enough people follow Hamilton County's mask mandate and some have begun to let their guard down — leading, no doubt, to the surges of virus cases we now see.
But we're encouraged that the conservative Coppinger sees the necessity of staying the course and is considering an extension of that mask mandate through the end of the year.
Coppinger calls the decision to mandate wearing masks "probably the most controversial" of his difficult government task — regulating the county's businesses and more than 350,000 residents during the pandemic.
"But I think it was also one of the most misunderstood [decisions]," he said of the mandate. "So much information is misrepresented on social media. We don't want to go back to shutting down businesses, so wearing masks is critical to keeping our economy open during this pandemic. ... It's against my thought process ... . I'm against regulations, but there's no other way."
Despite all of the Republican and conservative noise otherwise — from our president to local protesters — a whopping 67% of Hamilton County voters told Times Free Press staffers in exit polls on Election Day that they support a government mask mandate.
Also asked what they thought, in general, about local government regulations imposed to limit the spread of the coronavirus, 49.8% deemed those rules "about right." Only 9.7% said the rules are too strict, and 35.7% said they are not strict enough.
Hamilton County's mask mandate, initially implemented in July, has already been extended twice — once in September and again in October.
During the pandemic's first peak in the late spring, Coppinger, a Republican, followed a different path from that of Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke, a Democrat who favored masks as well imposing more far-reaching regulations on businesses and gatherings. At that time, Coppinger followed the lead of Tennessee Republican Gov. Bill Lee, who advocated a "trust" program with minimal regulations.
Coppinger at the time said, "People have personal responsibility."
But trust and personal responsibility didn't prove to be enough. When cases, hospitalizations and deaths spiked in late summer, landing Hamilton County on national hot spot lists, Coppinger implemented a countywide mask mandate, requiring face coverings in nearly all public situations with the possibility of a $50 fine and jail time for violations.
Today, he still sees that need.
"I see it every day and something has to give," he said last week. "We would have more people sick [without a mandate] and we would have more people die, and people can debate that with me all day long. But this is what it takes to stop the virus."
He says against the backdrop of our newest local virus surge. Last week the county health department reported a record 260 new cases just on Tuesday, and the climb really hasn't let up.
In its latest weekly report, the White House COVID-19 Task Force recommended all of Tennessee limit restaurant indoor capacity to less than 50% and restrict hours until cases and the percent positive of new tests decreases.
Also last week, a report from Vanderbilt University Medical Center shows the virus continues to hit hardest those communities without mask mandates and with fewer public precautions. The combined COVID-19 death rate for the 67 Tennessee counties without mask mandates was about four times higher per capita than the 11 counties that implemented the earliest public face mask requirements, based on data through the first week of October.
That trend isn't true just in Tennessee. After all, COVID-19 doesn't see county and state lines. Just look to neighboring Walker County, Georgia, where schools have now closed through Thanksgiving due to novel coronavirus cases.
Coppinger's first Hamilton County mask mandate prompted backlash and small protests. Another continuation of the mandate may, as well.
Whatever. Knock yourselves out, protesters. Put having to wear a mask in public right up there on the list with the other terrible inconveniences a common-sense democracy brings us — like wearing shoes and shirts in restaurants, renewing our drivers licenses, accepting day-light savings time.
No, it's not fun to keep up with and wear a face mask.
But to borrow the words of New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy: "You know what's really uncomfortable and annoying? When you die."
A mask mandate is not forever. It's a temporary thing to help you, your loved ones, your neighbors, your fellow citizens not be sick, or die or lose someone.
As we wait for vaccines, wearing face masks is a stop-gap measure to help curb the contagion of a virus that has sickened 11.1 million of us and killed about 247,000 in the U.S.
Right here in Hamilton County, COVID-19 by Sunday had infected more than 14,797 of us and killed 124 — all just in a matter of months.
Join us to encourage Mayor Coppinger to stay the course and make this one ask: Everyone please take this pandemic seriously, and remember it's not forever.