WILLIAMSON COUNTY’S WILD MASK MANDATE MEETING

A WILD NIGHT IN WILLIAMSON

Last night Williamson County became the 4th Tennessee county to pass some version of a mask mandate since Speaker Sexton’s threat to call a special session if they did, joining Shelby, Davidson, and Hancock County in East TN.

It was a wild meeting, with large groups attending on both sides of the issue. Anti-maskers showed up in force, chanting “No More Masks!” all night long and carrying lots of signs about “freedom” and “choice” – an interesting word for them to be using considering their stance on women’s reproductive rights, but we digress.

Pro-mask parents had shown up around 2PM for the 6PM meeting to secure the majority of places in line to be among the 30 who were allowed to give 1 minute public comments, many of which they ceded to doctors and nurses who showed up to lend their voices to the cause.

Early on it began to feel inevitable that the vote would end with some sort of masking requirement for elementary school-aged children. The justification given for the focus on younger kids was best articulated by Board Member Sheila Cleveland, who made the point that kids above 12 years old had the option to vaccinate, wear a mask, or learn remotely, but younger kids are not yet eligible for the vaccine, and remote learning is not an option for them. She summed up her decision: “What I feel is more damaging (mentally) than wearing a mask is when kids were sent home when schools closed.”

Superintendent Jason Golden was on hand to provide a recommendation to adopt the mandate for elementary school kids, but adding: “There is no clear answer. And if you disagree we respect that. Schools can’t solve COVID or end the pandemic… what we can do is mitigate.

Jay Galbreath offered a few amendments to make the inevitable mandate slightly more palatable for the anti-maskers, in particular adding an end date for the temporary mandate of September 22nd, two days after the next board meeting, which would mean just one month of masks, and would give the board time to review Williamson-specific data about the spread of COVID-19. Galbreath says he respects both sides, but pointed out “The only place in the county elementary school age kids would be required to wear masks would be in school.”

The amendments did not appease many of the angry anti-maskers, however. One man dressed in nursing scrubs, who we were told works at St. Thomas in Nashville, had been getting in the faces of pro-mask women before the meeting started – telling them “there is no pandemic”. He was the first to be kicked out by board chair Nancy Garrett for his repeated outbursts. Many followed him out, faces twisted in anger.

Another man who identified as a veteran hurled threats at the board.

At close to 10PM, after 4 hours of respectful deliberation between the board members and deeply disrespectful, childish interruptions from the anti-maskers in the audience – more than a few of which were forced to leave – the eventual vote ended 7-3 in favor of a temporary mask mandate for elementary students in the county.

The most commonly cited reason board members gave for voting in support was that they felt better about living with the consequences of imposing a simple mitigation tool than they would about the consequences of not doing so and allowing the disease to spread.

Jennifer Aprea pointed out that she believes in “choice”, but that the choice must stop when that choice can impact the health of others around you, using the example of parents not sending nut-based products to class when other students have a debilitating nut allergy: “Sometimes we have to make a decision for the good of the whole.”

Despite Speaker Sexton’s warnings, there are no signs at this point that Governor Lee plans to call for a special session to ban such mandates. In a press gathering this week Lee said he believes parents should have the choice about masking their kids, but ultimately agreed that school districts DO have the legal authority to impose a mask mandate – something which many anti-maskers disagreed with (although most did not appear to be lawyers).

Many of the anti-masker parents could be heard yelling “DO NOT COMPLY!” after the decision was handed down. (Fascinating to hear that refrain from the same people who tell unarmed black people all they need to do to stay safe is obey police orders)

September 20th will be the next battle in Williamson County. Below are some video highlights from the raucous event.

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