Members of the Rhea County Commission declined to vote on a measure that would recommend Rhea County citizens wear a mask while in public and when social distancing was not possible during the commission’s Tuesday meeting.
While most county commissioners said that individually they do support wearing masks and wear masks themselves while in public, many commissioners said they did not have the authority to recommend masks.
Rhea County Commission Chair Jim Reed said the county must “chose its words very carefully,” and did not want any such recommendation to appear as a mandate.
The request to recommend masks came from Drs. Dan Logan and Mark Pollard with Rhea Medical Center, who presented a possible resolution to the commission that would recommend masks to alleviate the spread of COVID-19.
“The use of a face mask has been proven to slow down the transmission [of COVID-19],” Logan said, adding that asymptomatic people not wearing masks pose one of the highest risks of spreading the disease.
Pollard said that their submitted resolution was not a mask mandate but a recommendation and statement of support for wearing masks.
Rhea County Commissioner Bill Hollin supported the recommendation and said that any such resolution passed by the commission would not be a mandate, since the commission is not legally able to pass such a measure.
“We can’t enforce [a mandate],” Hollin said. “But we can support the recommendation the doctors have made.”
Both commissioners Leo Stephens and Emmaly Fisher said that while they personally wear masks and encourage others to do so as individuals, they both worried that the type of language in the resolution would make people think the county commission had passed a mask mandate.
“I’m afraid the people will read this as if it’s being ordered they have to wear a mask,” Stephens said.
Currently, per an executive order from Gov. Bill Lee, the only government official who can mandate masks in public is the county executive. Rhea County Executive George Thacker has not issued a mask mandate, but like members of the county commission, encourages Rhea County citizens to wear them of their own volition.
The recommendation reads, in part, as follows:
“Every person over the age of Twelve (12) years old who is in a public space should wear a face mask or covering when not able to engage in social distancing. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that children from age Two (2) to Twelve (12) years of age can wear a face mask, if no breathing problems or underlying health conditions exist and it could be easily removable by the child, if necessary.
“Every operator, employee, customer or patron of a business establishment should wear a face mask or covering at all times while at that business establishment unless he or she is able to engage in social distancing or unless wearing a face mask or covering significantly interferes with the provision or receipt of goods or services offered or received at that establishment (i.e. patrons at a restaurant, clients at a barber shop or hair salon, patients at a dentist’s office).
“The operator and employees of a business establishment should ensure that every individual in that establishment complies with these recommendations. When a customer of a business establishment has a disability that prevents the individual from wearing a face mask or covering, the owner, manager, or employee of the business establishment should provide curb service or delivery or other reasonable accommodation.“
No motion was made on the resolution, and it died for a lack of a motion.
The Rhea County Commission will meet next in a workshop session on Tuesday, Sept. 8, at 6 p.m. via conference call.