The City of Oak Ridge does not have the authority to require face masks to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, officials said Wednesday.
The number of COVID-19 cases in Anderson County, which includes Oak Ridge, has increased significantly this month. The county had 178 total cases on Thursday—a 70 percent increase since July 2—and the number of active cases more than doubled in eight days.
As the number of cases has surged in the region, people have set up social media groups where members have reported on mask use at local businesses and offices and called for mandatory masks, including in Oak Ridge and its schools.
On Wednesday, the city said it is prohibited from enacting or enforcing a mask requirement because of a Tennessee attorney general opinion issued in April and an executive order from Tennessee Governor Bill Lee in May. (The attorney general’s opinion is Opinion Number 20-07, and the executive order is Executive Order Number 38.)
Last Friday, Lee issued a new order, Executive Order Number 54, that related to face coverings. It authorized county mayors in most of Tennessee’s 95 counties to recommend or require face masks. But cities, including Oak Ridge, were not authorized to make that decision.
Since Oak Ridge is in Anderson and Roane counties, Anderson County Mayor Terry Frank and Roane County Executive Ron Woody would have to approve mandatory masks in their counties, or authorize city governments such as the one in Oak Ridge to make that determination, the city said.
“Unless and until the City of Oak Ridge is given the authority to consider such action, we will continue to urge citizens to wear masks and comply with social distancing,” Oak Ridge Mayor Warren Gooch said. “We will also continue to encourage businesses to do the same. However, during this difficult time, it is also important for Oak Ridgers to support local businesses and their employees, whenever possible.”
Oak Ridge City Manager Mark Watson said the city has a responsibility to protect its residents and workers the best it can.
“With major trade centers and increasing commuter traffic anticipated to return to previous daytime population levels, the ability of the city to take actions that can reduce illness and sickness to our vulnerable populations and children is essential,” Watson said. “A masking requirement is a necessary element in the toolbox should it become necessary.”
The city said it has contacted Woody in Roane County, and he is studying the face mask issue before making a final decision.
Anderson County Mayor Terry Frank has said she will not require masks in Anderson County.
The city said Oak Ridge is a crossroads, with 45,000 cars per day at Illinois Avenue and Oak Ridge Turnpike and travelers and workers from many regional communities. Also, there are many people traveling to Methodist Medical Center, which is a major healthcare provider serving several surrounding counties, the city said.
Unlike Anderson and Roane counties, Knox County and five other counties with their own locally run health departments are allowed to make their own public health decisions, including about face masks, independent of the governor’s executive orders.
You can read Executive Order 54 here: https://publications.tnsosfiles.com/pub/execorders/exec-orders-lee54.pdf.
You can read Executive Order 38 here: https://publications.tnsosfiles.com/pub/execorders/exec-orders-lee38.pdf.
You can read Opinion No. 20-07 here: https://www.tn.gov/content/dam/tn/attorneygeneral/documents/ops/2020/op20-07.pdf.
More information will be added as it becomes available.
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