Rural Tennessee mayors feeling the squeeze as Gov. Bill Lee delegates mask rules to them

(Photo: Getty Images)
(Photo: Getty Images)

Two more Tennessee county mayors enacted first-time mask mandates on Friday afternoon ahead of the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday, citing rising COVID-19 case counts and hospitalizations.

Grainger and Claiborne County mayors are getting considerable community blowback after instituting mask mandates.

“Mayor Mike Byrd take your so called mandate and stick it. Free people live free you tyrant,” one post on the Facebook page of the Town of Bean Station in Grainger County said.

“You can not make us wear a mask. You do not tell us what to do,” a post directed at Mayor Joe Brooks in neighboring Claiborne County said. Both counties are located in rural areas of northeast Tennessee.

Gov. Bill Lee’s decision to leave it to mayors to decide whether to enact mask rules has put the squeeze on many Tennessee rural and suburban county leaders, who are being lobbied by nurses, hospital executives and teachers in their communities to enact mask mandates that are being angrily resisted by other constituents who view any pandemic-related mandate as an infringement on their liberty.

There are now approximately 29 counties — out of Tennessee’s 95 — that have enacted mask mandates, a figure based partly on Vanderbilt University Medical Center’s data from November 9 and news reports. The state does not track which counties have mandates and which do not. A spokeswoman for the Department of Health said she was not aware of any resource that does.

In Rutherford County, Mayor Bill Ketron, Jr. — a former Republican state senator with a reputation as a staunch conservative who once introduced a bill to explore Tennessee creating its own currency and a bill that would have outlawed Sharia law in Tennessee — called his decision to impose mask rules in the Nashville suburban county among the most difficult of his career in public office.

Ketron enacted a face covering order shortly after the county landed on the White House’s “red zone list” in July.  He suspended the rule in September, then reinstated it on October 28. It remains in effect until December 31.

Ketron’s decision has proved unpopular among many of the county’s residents.

“This year has certainly proved to require several of the toughest decisions I’ve ever made in leadership,” Ketron said via email.

The feedback he has gotten regarding the mandate has been mixed, but Ketron said he has tried to find a respectful middle ground even as many as half of his constituents disagree with him.

“Early on, the split was nearly 50/50. The second time around, it seems that the percentage of those in favor has increased. There have even been instances of those who disagree with the face covering order calling and expressing their opinion, only to acknowledge their understanding of the decision after further discussion; not agreeing with the decision but at least understanding the choice.

“There was no playbook for this pandemic or its repercussions, no way to plan for something of this nature. We will be writing the playbook one of these days. For now, we continue to monitor the information that changes daily and sometimes multiple times a day, and do what we believe to be best to protect our citizens and visitors from getting or spreading this virus.”

In West Tennessee, county and city mayors representing largely rural Republican communities criticized Lee’s resistance to enacting a statewide mandate during a video conference call with the governor on November 18 reported on by the Commercial Appeal.

“The governor is going to have to step up because I’m not going to issue a mask mandate if my fellow county mayors aren’t going to issue it,” Brett Lashlee, mayor of Benton County, said during the call, according to the newspaper. “You’re not going to convince rural citizens to embrace a mandate.”

Gov. Bill Lee continues to stop short of issuing a statewide mask order and Tennessee remains one of 13 states that has not used mask mandates as a tool to control the virus. Lee has said the decision is better left up to local leaders and has encouraged personal responsibility in wearing mask.

But as the disease has continued to progress, that has left mayors like Joe Brooks in Claiborne County — who also initially urged residents to take personal responsibility — switching gears.

“We are a free society and as such should be able to make our own decisions and I do not believe it is the role of any government within a free society to dictate the actions of its citizens,” Brooks said in July in reference to a county mask mandate.

Last week, Brooks issued a mask mandate and said in a public statement that “difficult and unpopular decisions” sometimes must be made.

“Being County Mayor certainly carries a great deal of responsibility, none being more important than the health and wellbeing of some 33,000 residents; parents, children, grandchildren, grandparents, friends, neighbors, church members, students, teachers, public sector employees, private sector employees and the list goes on and on,” Brooks said.
“You are all ultimately my responsibility and being the leader of Claiborne County is not something anyone should take for granted when looking at the health and wellbeing of each of our citizens. To that end, difficult and unpopular decisions have to be made to ensure the safety of every Claiborne County is paramount to the success of our county.”