The Knox County Board of Health voted Wednesday to approve a public health order requiring most people to wear face coverings in public to help slow the spread of COVID-19.
Although the full text of the order was not immediately released publicly Wednesday evening, discussion at the board of health meeting revealed the order will require most people to wear face masks in most public indoor spaces in Knox County. Excluded are houses of worship as well as state and federal government facilities. Children ages 12 and under will not be required to wear masks, and neither will people who have medical conditions that prevent them from wearing one.
The order goes into effect Friday and lasts until the board votes to suspend it. Violating it is classified as a Class C misdemeanor, punishable under state law by up to 30 days in jail and a $50 fine. Dr. Patrick O’Brien, the board of health member who proposed the mandate, stressed it should be enforced via warnings, not through fines or jail time.
“I would propose that nobody be jailed for this. I think that would be crazy,” said O’Brien, a physician with the U.S. Air National Guard. “I would give people warnings. I would give them a mask.”
The board, which is composed of six medical professionals, a Knox County Schools representative and Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs, voted 7-1 to approve the public health order. Only Jacobs voted no. Schools representative Lisa Wagoner voted yes after she persuaded the board to exclude public schools from the order. She said the school district falls under the state and will come up with its own plan.
At least 18 states require people to wear face masks in some capacity to stem the spread of the coronavirus, according to CNN. Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee has the authority to issue such a mandate statewide but so far has declined to do so. Through his executive orders, Lee has allowed officials in six of the state’s 95 counties — Davidson, Hamilton, Knox, Madison, Shelby and Sullivan — to enact restrictions for their own communities.
Knox County’s mandate follows similar orders by officials in Memphis and Nashville.
Although those cities have been harder hit by the virus than Knoxville, Knox County has seen an increase in the rate of new cases and hospitalizations in recent days. O’Brien said he drafted the order with help from an attorney and after talking to city officials in an attempt to prevent the local situation from worsening.
“We have to watch the numbers,” O’Brien said. “I just don’t want to see our community become like Nashville, become like Memphis or even Chattanooga. I want to do something proactively that the science tells me works, and it’s something simple. It’s putting this on my face when I go into a store or a restaurant and to just do that until the time we don’t need it.”
Dr. James Shamiyeh, a board of health member who has worked for 15 years as a pulmonary and critical care physician at the University of Tennessee Medical Center, said that although hospital capacity in the region is good — the health department’s benchmark system rated it as green Wednesday — the number of new hospitalizations over the past week has “caught our attention.” The number of COVID-positive regional hospital patients climbed from 23 to 56 from June 22-29, according to county data. Thirteen Knox County residents were hospitalized with the virus as of Wednesday.
The medical professionals voted to pass the order despite the near constant objections of Knox County Deputy Law Director Myers Morton, who called the order unconstitutional, recommended the board stick to the governor’s guidelines to shield the county from lawsuits and said a violation of the order can’t be a misdemeanor unless there’s a “rational basis” for issuing it based on a lack of hospital resources.
“Based on the nature of the virus and the way it behaves, hospitalizations lag behind cases,” Shamiyeh explained. “And so when we see a significant spike today, it’s what does the hospitalization look like three weeks from now that matters. … There’s a natural lag in any conversation you have around COVID.”
Earlier Wednesday, the Knox County Health Department updated its COVID-19 benchmarks, which were presented to board members.
The health department continued to rate the county’s case growth benchmark as red, citing statistically significant increases in cases over the weekend and early this week. Officials revised the testing benchmark from red to yellow, citing a modest improvement in test result turnaround time and an error in the statewide reporting database over the weekend.
“We put it at yellow because there are still issues with the reporting turnaround time last week and into the weekend,” said Charity Menefee, director of emergency preparedness for the health department. She said that the health department was monitoring the situation and reflected its “cautiously optimistic” assessment of the testing benchmark.
The other benchmarks — hospital capacity, contact tracing capacity and deaths — remained green.
Health department officials warned they have seen a statistically significant increase in the number of COVID-19 patients in the hospital. While this increase was not enough to shift the benchmark’s rating, the county is watching it with concern.
“While hospitals remain within their capacity to respond, this trend demonstrates that the virus is still very present in our community and putting more people in the hospital,” Menefee said at a press conference.
Health department officials also reported that since May 1, they have received hundreds of complaints from residents about businesses that were not following masking, occupancy or social distancing guidelines. About 250 complaints were for food service businesses, while 178 were for other types of businesses.
The health department advised residents to be cautious over the July 4 weekend to help stem the ongoing community spread. They advised everyone to masks, avoid large gatherings, wash their hands and physically distance themselves as much as possible in public spaces.
“There is risk everywhere that you can go at this time in our country,” Menefee said.
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