counties

Counties announce end of mask mandates ahead of governor’s decision

Gov. Bill Lee, left, announces a $200 million relief program for businesses affected by the state’s stay-at-home order for non-essential businesses at Arnold’s restaurant in Nashville on June 2, 2020. To his right are House Speaker Cameron Sexton, Senate Speaker Randy McNally, Rep. Pat Marsh, and Rep. Harold Love. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

With Gov. Bill Lee’s decision pending Tuesday about whether to extend an executive order allowing county mayors to decide whether to impose mask mandates to help stem the spread of COVID-19, several local leaders are already announcing they will no longer require face coverings.

Rutherford County Mayor Bill Ketron, whom Lee had personally lobbied to impose a mask requirement in July, dropped the mandate last week. Wilson County Mayor Randall Hutto has announced a local mask mandate will expire Wednesday, but he’s still urging people to wear them in public. (Meanwhile, WZTV-TV reported the administrative building in Lebanon is closing down after eight employees tested positive for COVID-19.)

Montgomery County Mayor Jim Durrett announced a mask mandate for businesses open to the public will end on Wednesday. But the requirement will remain for government offices, including schools.

Hamblen County Mayor Bill Brittain said he would extend a mask mandate if the governor leaves the decision with local officials. The number of positive tests has declined in the East Tennessee county since the mandate went into effect on Aug. 4, he said. Tipton County Executive Jeff Huffman cited improving infection numbers in dropping a mask mandate.

But in Sullivan County, local health department director Stephen May said he wants to extend the county’s mask mandate beyond Sept. 30. Sullivan is among six counties with independent local health departments that have the authority to set their own policy responses to the pandemic. The others are Shelby, Davidson, Knox, Hamilton, and Madison counties.

House Speaker Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville) has been speaking out against the power of local health boards to override the wishes of county mayors.

“They’re acting like a legislative body that are voted or elected and they’re not. They’re appointed and they’re actually putting in criminal enhancements for people not to wear masks,” WCRB-TV quoted Sexton as saying during a visit to Chattanooga last week. “That’s outside their purview.

“They are absolutist and they are able to control anything and make people do whatever they want,” he said. “That’s not good policy. That’s not a good step.”

Early voting down 8% compared with 2018 primary

Early voting was down 8% compared with Tennessee’s 2018 primary election featuring a heated governor’s race and another open U.S. Senate seat.

Republican voting was down 11%, while Democratic turnout was up 2%. GOP voters still showed up in far greater numbers than Democrats, 354,600 to 215,790.

Only 21 counties saw increases in Republican early voting, led by a 63% growth in Washington County in the heart of the 1st Congressional District, where 16 Republicans are vying to succeed retiring U.S. Rep. Phil Roe (R-Johnson City). Other counties in the district posing GOP gains included Unicoi (21%), Sullivan (14%), Sevier (11%), and Grainger (8%). Turnout decreased in the district’s remaining counties: Jefferson (-9%), Hamblen (-13%), Greene (-21%), Johnson (-23%), Hancock (-28%), and Cocke (-30%).

Democratic turnout saw its biggest boost in Davidson County, where early voting was up 53% compared with two years ago. Knox County also saw a Democratic gain of 29%, while GOP turnout dropped 10%. In Hamilton County, Democrats saw a 24% increase but Republican turnout also grew 19%.

In Shelby County, which usually accounts for the state’s largest turnout for both parties, Democratic early voting was down 4%, while GOP balloting cratered by 25%.

The full early voting list by county compared with the 2018 primary follows below.

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Here’s how much federal relief money is flowing to Tennessee counties

The Senate meets in Nashville on June 1, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

A total of $13 billion in federal COVID-19 relief money is flowing to Tennessee, and a new interactive state website allows users to break down how much is headed specific counties.

In a meeting of the Financial Stimulus Accountability Group on Monday, Senate Speaker Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge) asked whether the amounts can be broken out on a per-capita basis to ensure smaller counties weren’t getting less than the likes of Metro Nashville and Shelby County. Gov. Bill Lee’s administration didn’t have those figures at their fingertips, so the Tennessee Journal has crunched the numbers. Here are the top 10 per-capita recipients of federal aid (Anderson County, where McNally lives, comes in at No. 12):

  1. Jackson, $7,126
  2. Cheatham, $4,363
  3. Davidson, $3,931
  4. Carroll, $3,380
  5. Smith, 3,738
  6. Fayette, $3,525
  7. Cannon, $3,056
  8. Carter, $2,643
  9. Giles, $2,643
  10. Bledsoe, $2,557

The full per-capita breakdown follows:

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