MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Memphis City Council voted 9-4 Tuesday night approving an ordinance that would require residents to wear a mask or facial covering in public.
Medical experts say a recent spike in COVID-19 cases in Memphis and Shelby County shows people aren’t following social distancing guidelines or wearing masks.
“In a city predominantly African-American, in my mind, it is our duty to try and protect our citizens by having us do something common sense by requesting people cover their face when they’re inside a business," said Councilmen Dr. Jeff Warren, a sponsor of the ordinance.
“I do support wearing a mask,” said J. Ford Canale, one of four council members to vote “no” on the new ordinance. “I think it’s important. I just cannot get to the point of mandating it and making it a misdemeanor.”
Councilmen Chase Carlisle, Frank Colvett and Worth Morgan also voted against the ordinance.
“What I worry about if this goes into law, our 911 system is going to be inundated with calls about people not wearing masks,” said Carlisle.
But Councilman Martavius Jones said the data indicated the council needed to act.
"One of the things we cannot deny are the increased numbers,” Jones said. “Whatever we’ve been doing in the past has not worked.”
The Shelby County Health Department reported 454 new coronavirus cases in the last 48 hours. And a new study from Vanderbilt University shows COVID-19 hospitalizations in Tennessee are at an all-time high with 400 statewide. As of Sunday, more than 200 patients were in Memphis area hospitals.
Shelby County COVID-19 Task Force member Dr. Jon McCullers said local hospital capacity is at 80%. The emergency field hospital built in the old Commercial Appeal building on Union Avenue is an option he’d prefer not to use.
“That’s ready to go,” he told WMC Action News 5. “It will take about two weeks to ramp up. We hope we don’t have to use that. If we do, that really to me, is a failure of our public health measures.”
Fellow task force member and Infectious disease expert Dr. Manoj Jain says requiring people to wear a mask can reduce virus transmission and potentially help save lives.
“It’s the right thing to do,” he told the council members during their hours-long debate. “It’s really the right thing to do."
There is no fine with the ordinance. Get caught not wearing a mask and you will be issued up to three warnings. But if the council feels like the community is not following the law, they can go back and revisit the ordinance and add a financial penalty of $50 plus court costs.