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No mask mandates locally, yet

J. H. Osborne • Jul 7, 2020 at 12:00 PM

Last week, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee made it possible for county mayors across the state to decide whether face masks will be mandated for use in each particular county.

That put the ball in the court of most Northeast Tennessee county mayors — Sullivan County Mayor Richard Venable already had authority to issue a mask mandate because Sullivan County is among six counties across the state with locally operated health departments.

The Times News canvased some local officials to see what, if anything, Lee’s move means for our readers.

Sullivan County

Venable told the Times News late Monday afternoon that he is not  inclined to issue any mask mandate in Sullivan County, at least not now. Venable said his position on the issue is based on his conversations with Sullivan County Regional Health Department Medical Director Dr. Stephen May and Gary Mayes, director of the health department.

“I’m not inclined to issue a mandate for Sullivan County myself,” Venable said. “Right now, I think mandates are appropriate in some cases. I’m not to that point yet for the general population, for general business people. I’m encouraging businesses to require face covering for people patronizing them. But I’m not ready to do that countywide right now. The five largest counties (in Tennessee) have. Some businesses are. I can’t name one. But I have heard that numerous businesses require a mask to come in.”

Venable clarified if a business is requiring masks, it is because that business made the decision to do so — and the public can decide whether to patronize businesses that don’t require masks.

“I think right now that’s the way it should happen,” Venable said. “And I think  people should make their own decision about not doing business with people that don’t require a mask.”

For now, Venable said he will continue to take advice from May, who looks at COVID-19 numbers daily. And if May indicates the trend in cases reaches a breaking point, they’ll consider a local mandate for face masks.

“We’ll collaborate, and there may be a time in the future when we think that it is in the best public interest to (mandate face coverings),” Venable said. “Personally, I’ve been looking at it myself for a few weeks, and I just don’t think it has gotten to that point yet where I think it would be in the overriding public interest to do that, taking away the individual responsibility that people have. And who’s going to enforce it? Nobody. And it sets up the potential for public shaming, public disagreements and things of that nature ... vigilante enforcement. There’s very little downside to wearing a mask. I don’t believe most of the reports that it is bad for you. It’s inconvenient to some of us.”

Kingsport

Mayor Pat Shull said Kingsport will base its action on the issue from the Sullivan County Regional Health Department.

“One county mayor west of Nashville issued a mask mandate, and that went over like a lead balloon,” Shull told the Kingsport Board of Mayor and Aldermen on Monday. “It's hard to enforce something like that, and our situation is much better than Davidson or Shelby County, but (COVID-19) is still something to be concerned about.”

Hawkins County

Hawkins County Mayor Jim Lee said he is in constant contact with the Tennessee Department of Health and the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency regarding COVID-19 response.

“I’m going to talk to other county officials and health officials today and tomorrow,” Lee told the TImes News on Monday. “I want to make the best decision for the community. At this point I am not going to mandate it. The World Health Organization has changed its stance on wearing face masks during the COVID-19 pandemic. People over 60 and people with underlying medical conditions should wear a medical-grade mask when they’re in public and cannot socially distance. Nobody wants to go back to lockdown mode. Let’s not go backward. I do believe we should wear a mask and maintain social distancing, but I’m not comfortable with the government mandating it .”

Staff writers Matthew Lane and Jeff Bobo contributed to this report.

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