Knox County passes mask mandate for indoor public spaces

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — A new mask mandate dubbed the “COVID-19 Face Covering Regulation” has been approved by the Knox County Board of Health that will go into effect for some indoor public places Friday, July 3.

The resolution reads, in part, no person age 12 or older will be allowed within 6 feet of another person in an indoor public place without a mask.

The resolution allows a person to not wear a mask near others in a public place if they are members of the same household. Exceptions allowed by the resolution are given to those who have a medical, physiological or psychological disability that prevents them from wearing a mask, the hard of hearing, and those receiving medical treatment where a mask could hinder that treatment.

Other exceptions are included for those eating and drinking in public and exemptions for those in houses of worship.

The regulation also states that a person who knowingly fails to wear a face-covering in any indoor public place where the wearing of face coverings is required may be subject to penalties provided by Tennessee state health, safety and environmental protection law (TCA § 68-2-602) — which is “any person who violates a county board of health regulation commits a Class C misdemeanor.”

The penalty for a Class C misdemeanor can include a $50 fine and up to 30 days of jail time. Board member Dr. Patrick O’Brien said the mandate should be enforced through warnings.

“I would propose that nobody be jailed for this. I think that would be crazy,” O’Brien said. “I would give people warnings. I would give them a mask.”

Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs was the only dissenting vote on the motion.

But, board members said Wednesday night the board’s emphasis intent is on education, not citations.

Signs must also be posted at public places, according to the regulation: “Signs consistent with the regulation shall be clearly and conspicuously posted at every entrance to every indoor public place where the wearing of face coverings is required pursuant to this Regulation by the owner, operator, manager, or other person in control of that place.”

Before the vote, the board discussed the possible mask mandate for public spaces to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, but there were some hang-ups the legal team and some board members had about the proposed regulation.

Wednesday night, the board met for its meeting to discuss health and safety issues as well as the next steps in the reopening process amid the pandemic.

Board member Dr. Patrick O’Brien proposed a mask mandate for public spaces; making a motion to approve the “COVID-19 Face Covering Regulation” resolution that would go into effect July 3.

While O’Brien’s motion was on the table, other board members wanted a chance to read the whole resolution proposal before taking a vote. The board took a short break in order to read the resolution.

After returning, the board then struck the wording, “public” from the resolution’s item No. 3, letter “g” that defined educational facilities as part of indoor facilities. This was struck because schools fall under the state’s jurisdiction and not the county’s.

The resolution defined “indoor public place” as an enclosed area to which the public is invited.

The county’s Deputy Law Director Myers Morton called the proposed resolution “unconstitutional in a number of ways.”

The COVID-19 Face Covering Regulation goes into effect at midnight, July 3, and will remain in effect until amended, superseded or rescinded by the board of health.

Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon praised the board of health decision and thanked them via her Twitter Wednesday night: “This is good news for public health. Thank you Knox County Health Board!”

Last week, health officials moved to enforce new mandatory mask declarations in Memphis and in Nashville.

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Knox County Sheriff Tom Spangler released a statement just before 11 p.m. Wednesday night:

“There are serious questions as to the constitutionality of the order made by the health board. My Deputies are sworn to support and defend the constitution. We will rely on the citizens of this community to protect themselves and others in the manner they find appropriate.”

Tom Spangler, Knox County Sheriff

This is a developing story and we will provide you more information as it becomes available.

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