Wilson County Mayor Randall Hutto announced that residents are not required to wear masks in public during a press conference held Wednesday, and are instead strongly encouraged to do so.
His decision comes after Gov. Bill Lee granted counties the authority to enforce masking mandates and as COVID-19 cases surge in Tennessee. Wilson County has 1,060 confirmed cases and 17 deaths at press time.
“For those who sent the word to me to mandate the masks, we thank you,” Hutto said. “I trust you’ll be wearing your masks. We encourage you to encourage others to wear their masks. For those of you who asked me to not take away your rights, to make it your own decision, I hear you. We want you to make the choice.”
Hutto said the county reformed its COVID-19 task force, consisting of health officials, first responders, school leaders, mayors and Chamber of Commerce members, to help make a decision.
The data the group weighed showed an increase of 524 cases from June 7 to July 7, along with an increase of 1.3% in the number of positive test results from June 15 to July 7.
“Wilson County and Middle Tennessee are really at a critical point as we continue to see record numbers of new cases being diagnosed,” Vanderbilt Wilson County Hospital Chief Medical Officer Adam Huggins said. “Vanderbilt University Medical Center and Vanderbilt Wilson County Hospital firmly support this initiative by the mayor to encourage the wearing of masks. We know that wearing a mask, diligent hand hygiene and social distancing where possible are the best tools we have to prevent the spread of COVID-19.”
Several other community figures involved with the task force confirmed their support for Hutto’s decision during the conference.
“We are here today to ask the public’s help in lowering these numbers,” Wilson County Sheriff Robert Bryan said. “It is going to take the assistance of everyone in this county to accomplish this. Everyone that’s talking today cannot do this, the citizens have to do this … I feel this is the right decision, but we all have to work together. The men and women standing up here today are unified, and we ask the citizens and businesses of this county to do the same thing.”
Bryan said the WCSO will begin carrying masks in their office in the next few days to help the public stock up, and deputies will also have some to give out on their patrol routes.
The Wilson County Health Department carries masks as well, and is offering testing at the Wilson County Fairgrounds from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on weekdays.
“We strongly encourage the use of masks and social distancing,” Wilson County Health Department Director Tim Diffenderfer said. “And remind people to wash their hands frequently.”
WEMA Director Joey Cooper said local first responders have maintained a steady supply of personal protective equipment (PPE) and distributed them to places including schools and assisted living facilities.
“COVID-19 spreads mainly among people who are in close contact with one another,” he said. “So the use of cloth face coverings is particularly important in settings where people are in close proximity or where social distancing is difficult to maintain.”
Mt. Juliet Chamber of Commerce President Mark Hinesley said that although he does not enjoy wearing masks, he made it a habit after a personal friend contracted COVID-19
“I have a very close friend that’s been in the ICU for going on two weeks due to this virus,” he said. “I personally sweated out those days waiting to hear the phone call that ‘your test was negative.’ Until someone actually is forced to see firsthand the enormous impact this particular virus can have on businesses, individuals and families, it’s likely impossible to appreciate what it’s like.”
Cumberland University President Paul Stumb said wearing masks is largely meant to protect others rather than the wearer, because they prevent as many droplets from escaping during a cough or yell.
“We in the school systems of Wilson County are committed to that,” he said. “We are telling our students, faculty and staff that it’s our expectation that they will wear masks to protect others, and we hope that you all will too.”
Lebanon Mayor Bernie Ash said Wilson County has been declared a hotspot for the virus as cases rise, and said he supports Hutto’s decision to avoid another potential business lockdown.
“There are many small businesses in Lebanon and Wilson County that have not made a comeback yet, and another shutdown of businesses would be disastrous for those families,” he said. “When in public, you need to wear a mask.”
Hutto said the task force as a whole is unified, and asked the community to do the same.
“We do not want to divide people in Wilson County,” he said. “We want to pull together, and do whatever it takes to stop the spread of this virus. We are all in unknown territory. We do not know exactly what tomorrow brings, but because you care enough for your fellow citizens, we are not going to mandate masks.”