Nashville will now have a face mask mandate.
The Nashville Board of Health voted unanimously to mandate face masks in an emergency meeting Friday. A policy will go in effect Sunday at 5 p.m.
The vote directs Metro Health Director Dr. Michael Caldwell to sign an emergency declaration by Sunday and to finalize policy details over the weekend to including how the measure will be enforced.
“I think this policy needs to be written and executed in next 24 to 48 hours,” said Dr. Alex Jahangir, the city’s COVID-19 task force chair. “We wait, people die.”
The order can be amended over time as needed.
Officials throughout Tennessee and across the country have debated for weeks over the practical issues of enforcement, individual liberty and personal responsibility — with the reality that there has been a surge of new coronavirus cases.
State officials reported the highest-ever count of new infections in Tennessee with 1,410 new cases Friday. The state also has the highest-ever number of people actively infected with the virus at 13,114.
In Nashville, officials reported 232 new cases Friday, a 17.7% positive rate in the 24-hour reporting period. There are 2,287 active cases in Davidson County.
The option to require face coverings has led to division among the city’s top health officials. Caldwell has said mandatory masks are unenforceable, while Jahangir supported the proposal in what he described as a “difference of opinion.”
The Tennessean reported Thursday that Mayor John Cooper was exploring a mask mandate. He said in a statement that he encouraged the board to meet Friday.
With Metro’s 14-day case trend on the rise and transmission rate “a cause of concern,” Jahangir promptly called on the board to approve the policy during the meeting.
“We must do everything that we can as a city to ensure the health and safety of our residents and visitors as we reopen,” he said. “The data is clear: Wearing a mask helps reduce the spread of this disease. We have been encouraging our citizens to wear masks when out in public … But now is the time to take the next step.”
Jahangir said he came to the decision to call for a mask mandate after consulting with experts and health leaders, and has heard consensus from council members. As Texas and Florida have regressed in their reopening plans, he said Nashville needs an mandate to prevent that.
Caldwell said Friday while he’s been struggling to “get to get to this point,” the increasing cases and the likelihood that it will continue to rise, make face masks a better option than reverting back to a previous phase.
He reiterated that enforcement will be challenging.
Board member Tene Franklin said she was supportive of the measure with the goal to change behavior rather than rely heavily use citations to punish people.
“The reason that we have public health policy is so we can change behavior. And if this is going to help increase the opportunity for Nashvillians to change behavior to protect themselves and others, I am all for it,” she said.
Nashville currently requires masks in government buildings and for employees of businesses who interact with customers. Businesses are also required to post signage encouraging people to wear masks.
“I’m thankful that the Board of Health voted to put the safety of Nashvillians first,” Council member Delishia Porterfield told The Tennessean. “Southeast Nashville has continued to be a ‘hot spot’ for COVID-19 cases in our city. This decision will not only help save lives but help flatten the curve as we work to keep our number of cases low; hopefully allowing us to return to some sense of normalcy,”
Mask mandates stir controversy
Tennessee reports some of the lowest rates of mask usage, with only 10% to 20% of residents saying they always wear a mask when they go out, according to research from the University of Washington.
While Gov. Bill Lee has encouraged residents to wear masks in public, he is not considering a statewide mandate as he “prefers not to have one-size-fits-all statewide mandates,” according to a spokesperson.
His stance on masks is consistent with his approach to the pandemic in urging residents to take steps to protect themselves, without requiring them to do so.
Nashville will join Memphis in the new mandate, where Mayor Jim Strickland signed a local ordinance Thursday. It has already been met with pushback as State Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, requested an opinion from Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery on mask requirements.
For now, the penalty for violating Memphis’ ordinance is listed as a “warning,” but it can be amended to include other penalties, according to The Commercial Appeal. For businesses, there will be a warning and then $100 fines for the next three violations. The city could then take the business to court.
Wilson County officials backpedaled an announcement that it would require all residents to wear masks in public on Wednesday. It clarified comments later to say it was merely a strong recommendation, as officials are unable to enforce this rule.
As the use of face coverings have become politicized, Caldwell has previously said he is worried a mandate may be met with significant backlash.
“I think face mask usage is a point that could inflame and cause more tension,” he said, expressing he’d prefer to look for other ways to encourage face masks rather than a “blanket order I will not be able to enforce.”
Nashville health leaders weigh nuances of mask mandate
Some board members Friday mentioned that while they, too, are worried about the response to the face mask mandate, they said there is a precedent to enact such policy, such as requiring the use of seat belts.
The vote took place about 40 minutes into the meeting with little discussion on what enforcement would like like and how rules may apply in certain situations, including when people are eating at restaurants.
Caldwell and a few members tried to discuss policy details but Jahangir pushed for board members to vote on the measure as he hoped to avoid a “long-drawn conversation.”
“(It) delays the expediency that I am striving for as chair of this board for the super important policy,” he said. “In my opinion, and I think once a policy is signed, then I think we need to amend it just like we’ve amended other director’s orders.”
Franklin offered Caldwell help to shape the policy and get input from other health leaders but agreed the matter should be taken up quickly.
“This is evidence-based, we are not reinventing the wheel here in Nashville,” she said.