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Gov. Lee asks Shelby County to end mask mandates. Local leaders hesitate.

Commercial Appeal Memphis logo Commercial Appeal Memphis 4/27/2021 Katherine Burgess, Samuel Hardiman and Corinne S Kennedy, Memphis Commercial Appeal
Lee Harris wearing a suit and tie: Tennessee Governor Bill Lee and Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris © The Commercial Appeal Tennessee Governor Bill Lee and Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris

Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris said it is possible changes will be made to the county’s COVID-19 regulations, including eliminating the mask mandate, to align them more closely with the state.

Earlier Tuesday, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee announced he had requested the mayors of the six counties with independent health departments remove any remaining mask mandates and business restrictions before Memorial Day Weekend. 

“Our hope is to be able to do that and be fully aligned with the state and best advice from federal authorities,” Harris said. “The virus doesn’t know any boundaries so it’s better practice to have a consistent approach across our state and nation.”

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Shortly after The Commercial Appeal spoke with Harris, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced its new guidelines, saying fully vaccinated Americans don't need to wear masks outside, except in crowded settings. Vaccinated people don't need to wear masks during small outdoor gatherings with others who are vaccinated or at gatherings with a mixture of vaccinated and unvaccinated people, the CDC said. 

The CDC still recommends fully vaccinated people wear a mask in indoor public settings, and at outdoor public settings or venues where masks are required.

Shelby County’s current mask mandate requires face coverings be worn except in exempted settings, which include within a person’s own residence, in a place of worship, while actively dining at a restaurant and while outdoors in a public space (unless maintaining a physical distance of six feet from people not of the same household is not feasible). It also exempts children age two years or less and people who cannot wear masks for medical reasons.

“We’ve worked hard since the beginning of this to try to align and try to avoid the confusion from vastly different approaches from county to county. We’ll review anything from the governor and the president and adjust based on the data and what we hear from our experts," Harris said. 

If something changes, a decision will likely be made toward the middle of May, Harris said.

State Health Commissioner Dr. Lisa Piercey said she did not have any authority to take action against metro health departments if they do not lift mask mandates and said any potential action taken against metro health departments would be a question for the governor. 

She added removing mask mandates did not mean no one would continue to wear face coverings and people could choose to wear masks in situations where they felt unsafe or wanted to exercise extra caution. Piercey also said that if there was a surge in the coming months, states and metro health departments had the ability to enact new COVID-19 restrictions. 

"Just because the requirement goes away doesn't mean the masks are going to go away," she said in a press briefing Tuesday afternoon. "They can still wear masks if they feel uncomfortable or if a private entity wants to have an organizational policy, they can still do that."

Shelby County’s current health directive states “if case numbers and other indicators remain stable,” its next health directive, which will be issued in May, “will shift from a mandatory approach to a recommendation approach.”

However, health officials have indicated they may be loath to do away with the mask mandate entirely, which they’ve called one of their best tools to combat the spread of COVID-19.

“We’re currently looking at all of our mandates, so the mask mandate is something we would consider. Actually, the mask is the simplest tool that we have that’s shown to be both effective and we would have to really have good reasons to get rid of it," said Bruce Randolph, Shelby County health officer, in a news conference two weeks ago. 

Later on Tuesday, health officials and local leaders expressed support for the continued use of masks and struck a diplomatic tone about Lee's request for the six largest counties, including Shelby, to repeal mask mandates.

City of Memphis Chief Operating Officer Doug McGowen said it is reasonable for some communities, depending on how many people are vaccinated, to cease mask mandates.

"Remember, our percentage is not as high as some other communities. And so, we're not there yet, to the point where it's reasonable to [not have mask requirements.] We need more people to be vaccinated before we can begin to have a conversation," McGowen said Tuesday during a news conference.

He said the city's legal team is evaluating what standing the city's mask ordinance would have if the Shelby County Health Department did not mandate masks.

"We're still evaluating the guidance that's just been released from the CDC and evaluating the request from the state et cetera," David Sweat, the chief epidemiologist and deputy director of the Shelby County Health Department, said, "We're going to ask for the informed opinion of experts before any changes are made."

Piercey said there was no clear-cut answer as to whether it was safe for people to stop wearing masks. 

"It's always been my stance that Tennesseans are intelligent people and they know what they want and they know what's right for them," she said. "It's not a secret for anyone in this state for what to do to protect oneself: wear a mask when you're in a crowded, indoor situation, get vaccinated, keep your distance, wash your hands."

'It is not prudent'

Dr. Manoj Jain, a public health advisor to Strickland and a key member of the Memphis and Shelby County COVID-19 task force, said he didn't think it was prudent to remove the mask mandate now.

"I would follow the CDC guidelines," Jain said Tuesday. "We need to continue masking in order to prevent infection, especially since a large percentage of our population is not vaccinated and also since there are variant strains in our community."

The infectious disease specialist said he would be comfortable with lifting the mask mandate when Memphis and Shelby County are seeing less than 10 new daily cases per 100,000 in population each day for several weeks or a month. This week, Shelby County has averaged about 15 new cases per 100,000 in population after about three weeks of hovering around 10. 

Sweat said it is easy for the public to get "distracted" by the decision of whether to repeal or keep the mask mandate. To do so, he said, would obscure how Memphis and Shelby County end the epidemic: Vaccinations. 

"The end of the road for the pandemic only comes when there are too few people left, who have not been infected that the virus can find and infect and the best way we have to get that number of susceptible individuals down as low as it can possibly be, is to vaccinate as many people as we possibly can," Sweat said. 

Dr. Shirin Mazumder, an infectious disease expert with Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare, said Shelby County had a large number of people who remained unvaccinated and was far from herd immunity. 

"Masking is still really important in our defense against COVID. We still have the virus circulating in our community," she said. "Our reproductive rate is still above one and we also have the presence of more transmissible variants in our community."

Mazumder also said it was difficult to set target dates for loosening restrictions and she thought taking it one day or one week at a time was a more appropriate approach. 

Dr. Steve Threlkeld, co-chair of the infection control program at Baptist Memorial Hospital-Memphis, also said setting concrete dates was somewhat concerning to him.

"You have to be concerned if we get too specific. I think the problem with this issue is you cannot legislate common sense or morality and this is the common sense variety," he said. "We hope that whether there's a mask mandate or not, that people will avoid going into a crowded room with multiple unmasked people in a poorly-ventilated area."

Threlkeld said ultimately, safely easing restrictions, including masking, hinged on vaccinations. 

"We need to remember the answer to whether we should have a mandate, the answer to everything right now, is 'get the vaccine,'" he said. "When everyone's vaccinated, we won't need mask mandates."

USA Today contributed to this report. 

This article originally appeared on Memphis Commercial Appeal: Gov. Lee asks Shelby County to end mask mandates. Local leaders hesitate.

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