BY SABRINA BATES
WEAKLEY COUNTY (August 20) — The decision to implement a county-wide mask mandate by Weakley County Mayor Jake Bynum was not one that came without a daily tracking of COVID-19 data on state, regional and local levels.
“The intended goal of the mask mandate was not to stop the virus. It’s here and while it’s not going to stop, we can reduce the spread and slow the increase in active cases in our community,” Bynum shared.
Bynum checks numbers of positive case counts, active cases and age ranges within the nine-county Northwest Tennessee region daily. Bynum said just in Weakley County from August 1 through August 9, 2020, there was an increase of 222 active COVID-19 cases in the community. That jump, combined with students in the Weakley County School System and the University of Tennessee at Martin beginning classes the next week, prompted the mask mandate.
“We know in-class instruction is the most successful for our students. As a county, we are not prepared due to limited technology and families’ access to reliable, affordable internet, to provide system-wide virtual learning. We also need eyes on the student population,” Bynum noted.
Since the global health pandemic hit, reports of child abuse in Weakley County are down 27 percent. Bynum says experts in the field of handling those situations fear the decrease isn’t good news. Often, school system personnel notice behavior differences in children and keep a watchful eye out for children who may be potentially abused or neglected at home.
Although UT Martin students returned to the campus last week, Bynum said the pandemic team leading the campus reopening at the system level had a smart, diligent, and dedicated plan utilizing online classes, social distancing in the classroom, mask-wearing and implementing smaller class sizes are designed for the safety of students and faculty.
“We know based on what the CDC (Centers for Disease Control), the Department of Health and medical experts say about mask-wearing. Masks aren’t necessarily to protect you, but it helps to keep you and others from spreading COVID to others,” Bynum said.
“I know this community is full of people who want to do the right thing. Wearing a mask doesn’t make someone a sheep. It shows an act of love for our fellow man,” the county mayor added.
Bynum said when the country opted to nearly shut down in March when cases began a slow spread in rural communities, but large impacts in metropolitan areas, the region potentially jumped the gun on business and school closures.
“We are not New York and California. This is not a one-size-fits-all situation. We went home and sheltered in place. I’m not sure that was the right decision for us. We have seen the impact to businesses and schools. By wearing a mask, it allows our schools and businesses to remain open. It is a simple act,” he shared.
He added he knows there is a large majority of the population who won’t become deathly sick if they contract COVID-19.
“I was elected to represent 100 percent of the population. I have had phone calls from people in the community thanking me for the mandate. We have grandparents who haven’t seen family members in months. Some tell me with the mandate, they feel more comfortable getting out and going places and visiting family members with less risk of exposure because they see people wearing masks throughout the community,” Bynum said.
As for businesses in the community, owners and managers are asked to enforce mask-wearing in their facilities. Large corporations started issuing company-wide customer mask-wearing policies prior to the Weakley County mandate. While it is understood no one can be forced to wear a mask, Bynum said businesses have a responsibility to do what’s best and they have the option to not serve those who choose not to follow the mandate.
“Honestly, if I go into a business that isn’t enforcing it and there are several people without a mask, I won’t do business there. This has nothing to do with me wanting to tell people what to do. This is a way to be considerate of one’s neighbors,” Bynum shared. In Weakley County, there is a large number of multi-generational homes and the mayor said he is hopeful others are mindful of the impact for those in the community who may lose work or become very sick from COVID. While he refuses to call mask-wearing the “new normal,” Bynum said he is hopeful seeing people out in the community wearing a mask becomes normalized for families. Students attending the public school system are required to don a mask when entering and leaving their school buildings, in the hallways and during times when social distancing is not possible throughout the school day.
“While there are people who are thankful for the mandate, there are lots of people out there who are upset,” Bynum reported. He said he receives phone calls and emails from people within the community who are voice their anger over the mandate. Although Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee gave the authority to mayors to issue community mask-wearing mandates more than a month ago, Bynum said he sat on that decision and conducted “a lot of soul-searching and praying.”
“This is not a decision I made lightly. I got into this job to help make my community a better place; not for political reasons,” the county mayor said.
He stressed the importance of proper mask-wearing for effectiveness. He explained the mask must cover the nose, be secure to the face and people to limit touching their masks while wearing them. A cloth mask should be washed daily and disposable masks should be disposed of after use.
There are some exceptions to the mask mandate, which is modeled after Gov. Lee’s recommendation. While houses of worship are not required to make visitors wear masks, Bynum said it is a good practice to wear masks during in-person church services.
Children, age 12 and under, are exempt and those who have trouble breathing as a result of an underlying medical condition are exempt from the mandate.
Other exemptions include within a residence and automobile, while outdoors unless social distancing from others cannot be maintained and while eating or drinking in a restaurant.
The order expires at 11:59 p.m. August 29, 2020, unless it is revoked prior or extended.
For additional information, visit www.weakleycountytn.gov.
BY SABRINA BATES