Sheriff would handcuff mask rule

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

A mask mandate may be implemented in Bedford County if COVID-19 cases continue rising, County Mayor Chad Graham said Tuesday morning.

“I remain confident that the people of Bedford County can do the right thing because it is the right thing,” Graham said in a press release.

“But if our active case count continues to rise, I will be forced to do something I truly do not want to do. If our number of active cases continues to rise as it has been doing, I will be forced to consider a mask mandate. That is not the approach I want to take, and if we can all pull together, it is not an approach I will have to take.”

Sheriff Austin Swing said later Tuesday his deputies would not arrest or ticket violators if masks are made mandatory.

“If there was a mask mandate, would you enforce it?” Commissioner Brent Smith asked Swing — who he termed “the most important person in Bedford County” — at the regularly-scheduled meeting of Bedford County Commission’s law enforcement committee. Smith opposes face masks, which he refers to in Facebook posts as “face diapers.”

“I think masks probably help, but I don’t know that we’re in a position to enforce it,” Swing said, citing Constitutional rights. “My answer right at this point would be no.”

Commissioner Linda Yockey asked Swing if he would support a mask mandate if implemented.

“Yes,” Swing said, “but I don’t think we’d be doing the right thing by arresting people or writing tickets.”

Shelbyville Police Chief Jan Phillips said Wednesday morning he would have to consult the city attorney, manager and judge before making an enforcement decision.

“This is a political football and we don’t want to get into this if we don’t have to,” Graham said at the meeting. He said it was his “most difficult decision” since taking office.

Graham expressed hopes local residents would take preventive action on their own. He said he’s unsure how much good masks do, but hand-washing, social distancing and awareness of one’s surroundings can make a difference.

Earlier in the day, Graham supported mask use.

“Cloth masks are not a cure-all. They are not equal to the N-95 masks worn by health care professionals. But state and federal officials — doctors, not politicians — say they are a key part of preventing the spread of the disease,” Graham said in the press release. “When you exhale, you spray tiny droplets of water that could contain the COVID-19 virus and carry it to others. A cloth mask helps reduce the spread of those droplets. You could be carrying the virus right now, without symptoms. Masks keep you from passing on the virus to the people you know, and the people you love. To a lesser extent, masks may also help protect the people wearing them.”

“These are common sense things,” Graham said at the meeting. “Each family has a responsibility to make good decisions. There’s tough days ahead and I hope you’ll search your souls.”

“The idea is to prevent a total shutdown,” Graham said, adding that would not be a local decision. There has been no discussion of shutting down local businesses, Bedford County Emergency Management Agency Director and county COVID-19 Task Force Chairman Scott Johnson said.

The Tennessee Department of Health reported 390 active COVID-19 cases among Bedford County residents in Monday afternoon’s report, a one-day increase of 74 cases. That total number includes 85 new cases reported Sunday. Only 10 new cases were reported Tuesday and the total case count fell as well. However, in the state’s Tuesday report, there was a dramatic decrease in testing, down to 61, yielding a positivity rate of over 16 percent.

Bedford County’s infection rate is higher than all surrounding counties except Lincoln, Graham said.

Those higher numbers may stem from an increase in testing. Bedford County Health Department’s daily test count has risen to around 200 per day, Johnson said at the meeting.

“There’s an increase in positives but schools aren’t where the jump is. It’s across the board,” Johnson said.

County Commissioner Bill Anderson said he’s heard of funerals where 20 to 25 people became infected with COVID-19. State officials have told Johnson that much of the increase has been traced to “family events.”

The state is opening new testing labs with one being assigned to Bedford County, Johnson said, with hopes for results to be returned within 24 hours soon. So-called instant tests are only 30 percent, Johnson said.

Bedford County’s death toll from COVID-19 was noted by Graham.

“For the past few weeks, COVID cases have been on the rise, both nationally and in Bedford County. We have lost two dozen people to this disease, and many more have been seriously ill, taxing our health care system and creating financial and emotional hardships for a number of families,” Graham said in the press release.

“We are all tired of COVID-19. But COVID-19 is still here, whether we are tired of it or not. To get this pandemic under control, we have to renew our efforts to protect each other, through social distancing, sanitation, hygiene and masks.

“People know what they need to do, they just need to do it,” Graham said at the meeting. “Everybody’s got COVID fatigue and many have let their guard down. COVID’s not a scam – the reaction to it has been.”

Local officials said they feel after this round of cases, a solution will be near and therapeutic drugs can already prevent some deaths.

Graham said brighter days are ahead.

“I was told today that Tennessee will be one of the pilot states to get the vaccine ready,” Graham said at the meeting. “By next summer it’ll be more like the flu.”