Masks still ‘personal choice’ locally

Ken Litke, from left, Carla Johnson and Mark Pantley enjoy lunch Thursday after a ribbon cutting ceremony for the new Lenoir City fire hall downtown.

Days after Gov. Bill Lee signed Executive Order No. 54 granting authority to mayors in 89 counties to issue mask requirements, Loudon County opted for personal choice.

Lee signed the order July 3 in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19 in Tennessee. The order extends until 11:59 p.m., Central Daylight Time, Aug. 3.

“While our densely populated urban areas continue to have the highest COVID-19 case rates, our local governments expressed a need for greater flexibility in addressing a rise in cases and that includes setting stronger expectations around masks,” Lee said in a news release. “This targeted approach ensures we protect both lives and livelihoods and safely keep our economy open in Tennessee. We encourage every Tennessean across the state to use a face covering or mask, make sure to socially distance and wash hands frequently.”

Loudon County Mayor Rollen “Buddy” Bradshaw encourages, but will not require, residents to wear masks. He made the decision public July 6 after speaking with city mayors and “at least” 12-13 other regional county mayors in an effort to “stay on the same page.”

In a letter, Bradshaw said he weighed both sides of the issue and spoke with medical professionals, the general public and small business owners.

“There’s a lot of different reasons,” he said. “The No. 1 reason for me, in the United States our Constitution still emphasizes the right of the individual, not the right of the herd or the right of the group, and so people have to be able to be accountable for their own actions. I don’t always wear a mask, several times I do, and that should be everybody’s right to decide. If there’s a place that requires it, I think that’s their right. If there’s somewhere that doesn’t and they don’t want to do for their business then that’s their right as well.”

The Tennessee Department of Health reported Monday that Loudon County had 331 “confirmed and probable” cases of COVID-19, which includes 244 that have recovered. As of Monday, there are two reported deaths.

Loudon Mayor Jeff Harris believes the decision should be a “personal responsibility and personal choice.”

“I’m not against masks, I’m all for it, especially when social distancing can’t be practiced,” Harris said. “I think it’s just a fundamental right that we have the choice on those matters. It’s not mandated, and I think the choice is the most important thing. People have the choice to wear it, they can not wear it. They can attend and not attend. They can practice social distancing. I just thought it’s something that we should be careful with and not mandate something like that. It should be left up to the people’s choice.”

Lenoir City Mayor Tony Aikens supported Bradshaw’s decision.

“I understand the virus is certainly serious and I would encourage social distancing ... but I would encourage that,” Aikens said. “If people feel comfortable wearing a mask, then wear it. If they don’t, then they shouldn’t. I think it needs to be left up to the people and their choice.”

He believes “less government in people’s lives the better we are.”

“I don’t think government should be dictating a lot of things we should do and shouldn’t do,” Aikens said. “They’ve put it out there, the government has put it out there that what the (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) recommends. ... I think it’s up those individuals. I don’t think that we should be dictating to them. We’re not a communist country.”

Should conditions worsen and a need arise to revisit requiring masks, Bradshaw said he would “never say never.”

“Big decisions like that I think involve many of our elected officials, and if it came down to readdress it that’s what I would do,” he said. “... I think that’s going to be fluid. Our numbers have went up. Of course now there’s probable and confirmed cases. I think any decision that big would be fluid depending on the circumstances and the overall size of the spike.”