Shelby holds out on ending mask mandate as other metros fall in line

By , Daily Memphian Updated: April 29, 2021 5:56 PM CT | Published: April 28, 2021 7:20 PM CT

While Shelby County officials review whether Gov. Bill Lee’s request to end the mask mandate impinges on local authority, four of the other six metro counties have already taken the leap.

And Davidson County, which has not yet, Tuesday said it will eliminate business restrictions on May 14.

Local leaders seeking advice on request to end mask mandate

That means it will be back to business as usual for the close-quartered honky-tonks on Broadway in Nashville’s downtown entertainment district.

There’s no word yet on what will happen here. The City of Memphis’ chief legal officer, Jennifer Sink, did not take reporter questions Wednesday, April 28.

Lee requested that each of the six metro counties with autonomous health departments lift their mask mandates and business restrictions by May 30.

Sullivan County in northeast Tennessee will end its mask mandate Friday, April 30.

Knox County quickly ended its on Tuesday, April 27, when Lee issued Executive Order No. 80, which eliminates mask mandates and other business restrictions in the 89 counties in the state that do not have independent health departments.

Hamilton County quickly followed suit. Its mask mandate expires at midnight Wednesday, April 28. Madison County has not had a mask mandate since March 31.

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While the possible end of a mask requirement strikes some business owners as common sense, infectious disease doctors are hesitant.

“I think it’s dangerous to lift the mask mandate at this point with so many variables that are still unknown,” said Dr. Nick Hysmith, infectious disease specialist at Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital. “We have seen over the last several weeks a little bit of increase in our cases that has sort of plateaued off but not really trending down.

“With 1,134 new cases across the state and eight deaths in the last 24 hours, COVID-19 is still very much a public health emergency,” he said. “Vaccination, masks, and distancing are our means to fight this pandemic. Currently only 25% of our state population is fully vaccinated. By ending the mask mandate, the fight will become more challenging and prolonged.”

<strong>Stephen Threlkeld</strong>

Stephen Threlkeld

Dr. Stephen Threlkeld says it is possible the numbers could be low enough by late May to warrant the decision.

“I think, however, the best way to know whether that’s advisable on Memorial Day is to look at the numbers just before Memorial Day,” said Threlkeld, who is treating COVID patients at Baptist Memorial Hospital-Memphis.

Case numbers fell 14% from April 14 to April 21, the last weekly average available in Shelby County Health Department data, but the positivity rate rose in the same period. The reproductive rate of the virus is also over 1, a sign that the virus is growing again.

Tuesday, Gov. Lee said the public health danger of the disease had passed and that it was time for Tennesseans to return to a more normal way of life.

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“There are currently no state-mandated business restrictions in 89 counties, and there haven’t been for many months,” Lee said Tuesday. “Last year, during the height of the pandemic, we did provide the Tennessee Pledge as a guide to help businesses find ways to safely keep operating.

“These guidelines will today be officially retired to send a clear message that Tennesseans know how to manage their day-to-day operations without a government playbook, even if it’s a voluntary one.”

The Tennessee Pledge guidelines reinforced the six feet of separation between tables in restaurants and other rules, including how long establishments were required to keep the names of patrons for contact tracing.

Many of the rules are still in place in Shelby County because they were issued in Shelby County Health Department directives.

The Memphis City Council also passed a mask ordinance. It is still in effect.

In Knox County, masks will still be required in city government buildings and in the court system. In Hamilton County, officials are still recommending citizens, businesses and schools follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, wearing masks in situations where there is still risk of exposure.

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The latest CDC guidelines, issued Tuesday, said unvaccinated people can exercise outdoors unmasked and attend small outdoor groups with vaccinated people. For large outdoor or indoor events, it said it is still too dangerous for anyone to be unmasked.

Memphis International Airport, governed by federal regulations, will not be allowed to relax its masking rules even if Shelby County does.

“We are a highly regulated business; it does not matter how we feel about a regulation,” said Scott Brockman, president and CEO of the Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority.

He expects the federal mask mandate will be in place through the summer for everyone in the airport, passengers included.

<strong>Bruce Randolph</strong>

Bruce Randolph

Earlier this month, Dr. Bruce Randolph, medical director of the Shelby County Health Department, made headlines with hints that the mask mandate could be gone as early as May.

“My feeling is that once we inform people of what they should do to remain healthy and safe, what preventive measures they are to take, then I think we have to let people choose to do the right thing,” he said in an interview.

“And I think eventually, what will happen is people will vote with their feet and dollars,” he said. “If they go to a place, restaurant, bar, whatever, and they see that no one is wearing a mask, not socially distancing, etc., then they will make the decision, ‘You know what, I’m not going to go in here. I’m going to go somewhere else.’”

Plenty of business owners are ready to take the mask-required signs out of their windows, including Josh Hammond at Buster’s Liquors & Wines.

“I’m personally over it. I’m over the mask,” he said. “I know a lot of employees are, and customers are too. At the end of the day, it has to be about safety, and the majority of our staff is either inoculated or not terribly concerned about it,” Hammond said.

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“If the mandate comes down, we will probably follow suit. This is in the first 24 hours, and I have not talked to my staff, but most of them that have been concerned from a health standpoint have received their vaccinations.”

Since other metro counties have relaxed their restrictions, Hysmith expects pressure here to do the same.

“We know there is large population in Memphis, and I am sure there other large counties that are opposed to the mask mandate. If the mandate is falling away in other counties, that is going to cause a bit of a rift in our population,” Hysmith said.

“I think it is going to lead people to want us to end the mask mandate.”


Sullivan County Davidson County Knox County Madison County Hamilton County Dr. Nick Hysmith Dr. Stephen Threlkeld Josh Hammond Scott Brockman
Jane Roberts

Jane Roberts

Longtime journalist Jane Roberts is a Minnesotan by birth and a Memphian by choice. She's lived and reported in the city more than two decades. She covers business news and features for The Daily Memphian.