COVID-19 deaths in the United States now hover around 133,000. That’s the entire population of Blount County.

If that isn’t sobering enough, maybe this is: Blount is seeing a major spike and saw 33 new positive cases on Tuesday alone and increased from 106 cases to 262 in fewer than three weeks — a rise of nearly 150%.

Even with those grim statistics, Blount County Mayor Ed Mitchell’s decision Wednesday not to mandate the wearing of face covers is wrong.

Mitchell should have followed the lead of Sevier County Mayor Larry Waters, who announced Tuesday that starting Friday, July 10, his county will require face coverings in all public indoor places where social distancing is not possible.

A group of critical care physicians this week also called on Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee to do the same to stop the spread of the new coronavirus.

Speaking for the group in a Monday news conference, Dr. Aaron Milstone, a Franklin pulmonologist currently treating COVID-19 patients, suggested the governor needs to mandate mask wearing statewide to bring Tennessee’s surging case numbers down. And then the state needs to enforce that mandate with penalties, he said.

Milstone rightly noted that when people refuse to wear masks, they are not protecting their own liberty but are threatening the liberty of others.

“When people ignore speed limits and drive recklessly they are fined because they are endangering others. When people are drunk driving, they are fined, because they are endangering others. In this health crisis not wearing a mask and not staying apart endangers the lives of countless others and prolongs this health crisis,” Milstone said.

Mitchell and other mayors kowtowing to bullheaded and selfish constituents are ignoring statistics that show Tennesseans (along with Indiana and Arizona citizens) are among the least likely of all Americans to always wear masks in public — 10% to 20%, according to a June study by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington. The infographic from that study is at https://bit.ly/2Z8ck7e.

We applaud some of Mitchell’s statements in a Wednesday press release, including “... we implore our citizens to do the right thing and follow all recommended precautions to combat COVID-19, which include wearing a mask and practicing proper social distancing and hygiene.”

Citing Blount County’s rising COVID-19 cases, Mitchell fell short, though, when he said in his statement: “I have no plans at this time to issue a mask mandate.”

That’s the kind of thinking that will lead to even more job losses and a bigger economic slowdown in Blount County.

Even Mitchell’s statement acknowledges that we’re not even close to returning to normalcy.

“While we cannot go back to a closed economy, we have to find a way to balance our economic activity and constitutional freedoms with the health and safety of our citizens,” the Blount mayor said. “Health officials from all over the country are urging the use of face coverings as a simple and effective way to continue protecting ourselves and others while moving about in the community. Personal responsibility will always be the best defense. Let’s all do our part.”

But what if some of us don’t?

That’s why mandated masks with enforcement provisions are necessary.

And it would have helped Mitchell’s messaging if earlier on Wednesday he had worn a mask at a political rally for U.S. Senate candidate Dr. Manny Sethi. Few of the dignitaries who attended that Maryville rally wore masks.

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