Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee signed an executive order late Friday that allows local governments across the state to mandate masks to try to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
The order applies to the 89 counties that don’t have their own health departments. Davidson, Shelby, Hamilton, Knox, Sullivan and Madison counties are excluded from the order, as they already had the authority to mandate masks. Davidson, Shelby and Knox counties have done so.
The governor’s order comes after an escalating increase in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations across the state, with daily and weekly records being set (see infographics by WPLN News).
“Our local governments expressed a need for greater flexibility in addressing a rise in cases and that includes setting stronger expectations around masks,” the governor said in a statement. “This targeted approach ensures we protect both lives and livelihoods and safely keep our economy open in Tennessee. We encourage every Tennessean across the state to use a face covering or mask, make sure to socially distance and wash hands frequently.”
The governor’s order will be in effect through Aug. 3. The full order is posted as a PDF.
The order gives some guidance to local governments, including implementing the following mask-wearing exemptions:
- homes and automobiles (unless transporting others for hire)
- children 12 and younger
- while eating or drinking
- people who have trouble breathing due to medical conditions
- anyone who is unable to remove a face mask without assistance
- while outdoors and working (unless unable to maintain 6 feet of distance from non-household members)
- while casting a vote or administering an election
- while in a house of worship unless required by the entity
- in circumstances where wearing a mask poses a threat to public safety
The change comes as local mayors have expressed interest in mask mandates, and frustration about state limits on their local power. That includes Wilson County’s mayor.
As recently as Wednesday, the governor and his health commissioner said they wouldn’t mandate masks. But they had adjusted an early stance as to what county leaders could do, saying that the relationship between state and local powers was being reviewed. Previously, leaders in Chattanooga had bristled at restrictions.
Nashville health officials took things a step further on Thursday by reverting the city back to Phase Two of its reopening plan. As of Friday, health inspectors were empowered to enforce the mask mandate with penalties.
Cases and hospitalizations setting records
Meanwhile on Friday, the number of cases in the state grew by 1,822 — setting another new record for a 24-hour period and bringing the total number of identified cases to 48,712. Testing has also increased, but not at the same pace. The state has seen a 7% positivity rate in the past two weeks, which is above the 5% total for the pandemic.
In the past two weeks, Tennessee is averaging more than 1,000 new cases, 42 new hospitalizations and eight additional deaths per day.
Earlier this week, Lee extended a state of emergency order until Aug. 29, and expressed concern about the rising number of cases in Sevier, Macon, Bradley and Rutherford counties.