Shelby County asks state for guidance on making masks mandatory

Questions remain over whether Shelby County can issue mask ordinance

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris says he has asked state officials for guidance on making masks mandatory inside businesses countywide, as COVID-19 cases continue to climb.

It’s been a few days since the City of Memphis began requiring people to wear masks in public in areas where they can’t social distance.

Harris supports the city’s ordinance, he says it’s unclear whether the county can issue one of its own.

”Right now we do not believe the county has that authority,” Harris said.

But with COVID-19 cases spiking, Harris says his administration has reached out to the State of Tennessee for guidance.

City investigating 49 complaints of people not following mask ordinance

”We are talking to the state,” said Harris. “That’s where this process is, talking to the state, to see whether or not the county has any authority around mandatory mask requirements.”

This isn’t the first time county leaders have looked into mandatory masks.

In May, Shelby County Commissioner Tami Sawyer proposed an ordinance to require businesses to make sure their customers wore masks. If business owners didn’t comply, they could be fined $50.

”A lot of the response that I received at that time was people feeling like we were encroaching on their civil rights, and not more so trying to protect people,” Sawyer said.

After county attorney Marlinee Iverson weighed in, saying the commission didn’t have that authority, commissioners passed by a vote of 8-5 a watered-down version of Sawyer’s proposal, a resolution urging the health department to use its independent authority to require face masks.

The health department has not done so but does recommend all citizens wear them.

Sawyer says in light of rising cases, she plans to, once again, ask the health department to make mask-wearing mandatory.

”When the resolution was first passed, my understanding was they didn’t feel like ‘required’ was necessary at the time. We were still seeing lower daily increases in the 100′s. But I think once we spiked to the 250s and now almost 300 a day, it has to be revisited,” said Sawyer. “I think that they hoped that people would use their personal responsibility and cover their hands, cover their mouth, wash their hands, use hand sanitizer and socially distance. But the anecdotal evidence is that too many people are out and about making bad decisions with their health and with other people’s health.”

Sawyer says she also wants the county to use some of the federal funding from the CARES Act to provide mask dispensaries in low-income communities.

Harris says he should be hearing back from the state in the coming days.

He says officials are looking at a number of other measures aimed at reducing the spread of COVID-19.

Harris ordered an executive order Tuesday aimed at protecting Shelby County inmates from COVID-19.

WMC Action News 5 reached out to the Shelby County Health Department to see if they have changed their stance on face masks. The health department has not yet responded.

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