Tennesseans have proven to be among the least willing to wear masks in public, according to newly released state-by-state data. So more public officials are pleading with residents to mask up, as a last hope to stop the resurgence of COVID-19.
The mayor of Wilson County, Randall Hutto, has had to look in the mirror this week and admit to being a small part of the problem.
“I’ve been a poor example myself,” Hutto says of his own mask wearing, “and I’m going to do a better job of that.”
Until early June, fatalities and case counts of the coronavirus had been steady in Wilson County. Since then, they’ve doubled.
On Wednesday, Hutto declared another state of emergency. And if he could mandate facial coverings, Hutto would. He tried in his original emergency announcement this week, but he had to back off.
“We don’t have the authority to require anybody to wear a mask, of course. That can only be with the governor. So we have retracted that,” Hutto says. “What we were trying to do is just strongly suggest people to go back and take as much precautions as they can.”
In neighboring Davidson County, local health officials have been preaching mask-wearing for weeks. But at this week’s COVID-19 update, they made sure to be seen on camera donning their mask, before and after speaking at the podium.
“One thing that each of us can do to not have to go back is to wear one of these,” says Dr. James Hildreth of Meharry Medical College, holding up a surgical mask. The Meharry president, who is also an infectious disease expert, recommends wearing one whenever in public “engaging others for more than a few minutes.”
As cases climb, the Metro Public Health Department also resumed distribution of free masks this week, after pausing to make sure the state-supplied masks were safe to be worn.
The broad push comes as a breakdown from the University of Washington finds mask use has improved in much of the country, but not Tennessee. The state has gotten worse.
Fewer than one-in-five residents say they make sure to cover their face when they go out. In some Northeast states, residents are three times more likely to claim to be committed mask wearers.
Another state near the bottom with Tennessee is Arizona. It’s experiencing a sharp surge in coronavirus cases, and the city of Phoenix has now mandated masks.
Tennessee’s data lines up with Carol Ludgate of Cookeville has seen when she gets out — a majority of uncovered faces.
“I think that it’s just cumbersome for people to wear. It’s hard to breathe when you have a mask on,” she says. “But when you think of what it’s intended for, it’s a small price to pay.”
Ludgate says, as a senior citizen, it’s not enough for just her to wear a mask. The real protection comes when everyone does, cutting the risk of transmission by a third or more.