Under cover from Gov. Bill Lee, Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs lifts mask mandate

Allie Clouse
Nashville Tennessean
View Comments

With a path cleared by Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, Knox County's indoor mask mandate was swiftly nixed by Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs. 

The lifting of the mask mandate, however, isn't complete at the seat of government itself. The City-County Building is jointly occupied, and the city of Knoxville and the court system still want a mask requirement in place. The Public Building Authority, which owns and operates the building, is requiring masks in common spaces like elevators and hallways.

Dwight Van de Vate, county chief operating officer, sent an email to county employees explaining the rules early Wednesday morning. Masks will not be required inside county offices, although Van de Vate said "any employee who wishes to continue wearing a mask in the workplace is free to do so."

Knox County Schools Superintendent Bob Thomas sent a message to families Tuesday night saying the district still requires masks to be worn by everyone inside schools, though the Board of Education scheduled a meeting Friday to review the policy.

Despite the lifting of the county's mask mandate, private businesses are free to require patrons to wear masks, similar to "no shoes, no shirt, no service" rules.

Jacobs's announcement came hours after Lee ended the state's pandemic safety guidelines. Jacobs confirmed with the county's law department that he had the authority to do so, mayoral spokesperson Mike Donila told Knox News. 

Jacobs spokesperson Abbey Harris told Knox News that Jacobs was empowered to make the change by the executive order Lee issued Tuesday. Knox County's legal team interpreted it to mean that public health powers reverted back to the county mayor's office from health officials, who were vested with those powers during a legally recognized public health crisis.

The mandate was put into effect July 3 without a sunset date by health officials as a pandemic mitigation measure. As vaccinations have increased in Knox County — health officials reported more than 40% of county residents have at least one dose as of Tuesday — cases counts have declined.

As of Wednesday, there were 651 active cases; 8,460 probable cases; and 43 people hospitalized. In all, COVID-19 has killed 629 people in Knox County.

Over the course of the pandemic, public health measures were enacted locally by either Knox County Health Department Director Dr. Martha Buchanan or the Board of Health as different regulations have controlled who had authority.

Buchanan emphasized her support for the indoor mask mandate as recently as last week. Specifically, she warned about protecting against COVID-19 variants.  

"There is some data from Sullivan County where they let their mask mandate sunset and they have seen an increase in cases," Buchanan said at last week's the Knox County Board of Health meeting. "They're actually also seeing a surge in variants in Sullivan at this time."

Lee announced that Tennessee also is abandoning voluntary guidelines it had released last year for businesses to follow, such as distancing and mask policies. A state website for the guidelines, known as the Tennessee Pledge, was removed Tuesday morning.

"It's time for celebrations, weddings and conventions and concerts and parades and proms and everything in between to happen without limits on gathering sizes or other arbitrary restrictions for those events," Lee said.

Buchanan had already lifted Knox County's restrictions on businesses. 

Tennessee was among a handful of states that never issued a statewide mask mandate, but through executive orders, Lee allowed counties to implement their own mask mandates.

Six of Tennessee's largest counties, including Knox County, are not run by the state and still have the authority to issue mask mandates if they choose, although Lee urged those counties to lift the mandates by the end of May.

The governor’s announcement followed Nashville health officials announcing earlier Tuesday morning they would lift all virus restrictions on the operations and capacities of businesses and gatherings on May 14, but are keeping in place an indoor mask mandate.

Lee's signing of a new executive order in place of the expiring one upholds deregulation policies the governor enacted last year for many business and public operations.

Despite Lee announcing the coronavirus public health emergency is over, the new order continues Tennessee's state of emergency, which allows the state to receive additional federal funding for various programs.

COVID-19 vaccinations in Tennessee

Knox News reporter Vincent Gabrielle and USA TODAY NETWORK-Tennessee reporters Natalie Allison and Brett Kelman contributed to this report.

View Comments