Governor denies mask mandate request from Shelby County

Published: Jan. 5, 2022 at 4:55 PM CST
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Despite the omicron variant of COVID-19 surging in Shelby County, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee is denying the county’s request to issue a mask mandate, even though county officials say one is needed.

In the last week and a half, Shelby County reported the highest case numbers since the pandemic began, alarming infectious disease doctors.

“We never ever see this kind of thing in infectious diseases in both the rapid rise and such a positivity rate, so we are all in unchartered waters here,” said Dr. Manoj Jain, an infectious disease physician and member of the city-county joint COVID-19 task force.

Last Thursday, Shelby County Health Department Director Dr. Michelle Taylor said the county would ask the state for permission to issue a countywide mask mandate.

“We will make the request to be able to do that,” Taylor said. “But at this time we do not have the authority to do that.”

The county no longer has the authority to issue a mask mandate because of a new law the state legislature approved during a special session last fall.

The law says the county must get approval from the governor.

In a statement to Action News 5, the governor’s office confirmed Shelby County had reached out but said the governor was not going to allow a mask mandate to be issued at this time.

“Shelby County has reached out to our office. Per Tennessee state law, government mask mandates are not permitted, unless there is a statewide emergency declaration and COVID-19 numbers exceed a specified threshold,” said Casey Black, the governor’s press secretary.

Black also referred to comments Lee made on Tuesday, saying the governor does not plan to issue a state of emergency at this time.

“An emergency declaration is a tool we should use only when we have to. There are a lot of things that go into the calculation for when you should do that, and the first and foremost would be the number of people who are in the hospital. Relative to where they have been in the past, hospitalizations are significantly lower,” Lee said.

While cases of Omicron have skyrocketed in Shelby County, hospitalizations have not increased at the same rate.

But Taylor says even a small increase could pose challenges for hospitals.

“Even a small percentage of such a large number will tax our hospitals even more than they are already taxed,” said Taylor.

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