Shelby County is not among the 89 counties where Gov. Bill Lee can remove the option to mandate wearing masks in public to combat COVID-19.
That has local officials hustling to define their position regarding’s Lee’s declaration on Tuesday that COVID-19 is no longer a statewide public health crisis.
Lee’s Executive Order 80, which he signed this week, ends a city or county’s local authority to mandate use of masks in public. The order is effective in 89 counties because the state health department directs policy for those counties.
Tennessee’s “Big 6” counties, which operate their own health departments, have been asked to join the unmasking policy by May 30. In addition to Shelby County, those six counties are: Davidson County (Nashville), Hamilton County (Chattanooga), Knox County (Knoxville), Madison County (Jackson) and Sullivan County (Blountville).
“COVID-19 is now a managed public health issue in Tennessee and no longer a statewide public health emergency,” said Lee. “As Tennesseans continue to get vaccinated, it’s time to lift remaining local restrictions, focus on economic recovery and get back to business in Tennessee.”
Memphis Chief Operating Officer Doug McGowen said Tuesday he didn’t think now is the time to be talking about lifting the mask mandate. He would like to have more people vaccinated before having that conversation.
A legal team is also looking at Lee’s request.
“Masking in public and social distancing will continue to be required,” said McGowen. “Especially, if they have not been fully vaccinated.”
Tennessee joins a number of states peeling away their remaining COVID-19 restrictions. Lee’s message comes as the state faces a public more hesitant of the COVID-19 vaccine than the rest of the country as a whole. Tennessee sits in the bottom three for its percentage of adults with at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose, at 42.8 percent, compared to the national rate of 53.9 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Lee said a marketing campaign to promote the new vaccines is coming soon, but he said it’s not underway yet because the vaccine has just become widely available in recent weeks.
His executive order focuses on economic recovery throughout the state and fully opening every entity.
“It’s time for celebrations and weddings and conventions and concerts and parades and proms and everything in between, to happen without limits on gathering sizes or other arbitrary restrictions on those events,” Lee said at Tuesday new conference.
Shelby County Health Department Medical Officer Dr. Bruce Randolph said now is the time for individuals to take personal responsibility in protecting themselves from COVID-19.
“I think we have come to a point where we should move away from mandated protocols and shift to personal responsibility,” said Randolph.
“Now is the time for an individual to protect himself by choosing to continue following the safety measures which have been put in place: wearing masks in public, social distancing, washing hands frequently, avoiding crowded, poorly ventilated places, and getting vaccinated.”
Lee’s executive order maintains Tennessee’s access to federal funding, including SNAP benefits and cost reimbursements for the Tennessee National Guard’s testing and vaccination efforts.
In Tennessee, all persons 16 years and older may now receive the vaccination.
On Tuesday, new cases totaled 118, with no additional deaths over a 24-hour period. There have been 1,613 deaths in Shelby County.
On Wednesday, April 28, there were 113 new cases reported and four additional deaths. There have been 95,087 COVID-19 cases in Shelby County, with 1,617 deaths.
A total of 308,242 people have been vaccinated; 207,142 have been fully vaccinated, and 101,100 have received their first shot.
“We want everyone to be responsible for his or her own health by getting vaccinated,” said Randolph. “Continue to ask questions so you can make an informed decision.”
(This story includes a report by The Associated Press. For questions and vaccination information, call the Shelby County Health Department at: 901-222-9000. )