Should you be wearing a face mask? It's 'more important than ever'

David Floyd • May 6, 2020 at 7:00 AM

Even as Tennessee begins reopening, health officials are recommending that people wear a cloth face covering when they go out in public.

Dr. David Kirschke, medical director for the Northeast Tennessee Regional Health Department, said masks reduce the risk of infection from people who are presymptomatic for the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), meaning they’ve contracted the illness but haven’t displayed physical symptoms.

“It’s actually more important than ever now that businesses and restaurants and things are opening back up, because we do expect a surge in cases of the coronavirus,” Kirschke said. “Coronavirus still is circulating in Tennessee, and if we open up without maintaining social distancing, we’ll have a surge in cases that potentially could include having to consider future stay-at-home orders.”

He said it’s important for people to wear a cloth face covering in public any time they’re going to be within six feet of other people. Fundamentally, Kirschke said the practice prevents the person who’s wearing the mask from unknowingly spreading the illness to other people, including those who are most at risk of serious infection.

Kirschke said the reason the case count in Northeast Tennessee is lower than more densely populated parts of the state is because of the stay-at-home orders, which helped maintain social distancing guidelines. Those orders have since expired.

He recommends that people stay home if they’re sick, get tested for coronavirus, wash their hands and maintain six feet of distance from others.

“We really just have to do this right if we want to avoid having to shut down again sometime in the near future,” Kirschke said. “Because we could within just a matter of six weeks or more have a fairly large surge in cases that might make us need to reconsider that.”

Although there are places people can go online to order masks, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a page on its website that explains how people can make their own face coverings.

The CDC suggests on its website that individuals wear face masks in public places where proper social distancing is difficult to maintain, such as grocery stores or pharmacies. This is especially true for places with high rates of community spread.

The agency says face masks should not be placed on children younger than 2, and individuals should not seek out surgical masks or N95 respirators, which the CDC says should be reserved for healthcare workers.

Rules for businesses

Will Martin, who operates Peggy Ann Bakery, 803 W. Walnut St., with his wife Stacy, said his business has been requiring all employees — including those working the cash register and bakers in the back — to wear face masks. He said the business has been doing that since the CDC released its recommendations.

Customers aren’t required to wear a face mask when they come in, but Martin said the bakery is limiting the number of visitors in its front lobby to four at a time, a rule that he said the bakery has been more adamant about as business picks up.

“We’ve talked about maybe requiring customers to have some face covering on entry, but we’re still kind of waiting to see how that plays out,” Martin said.

The establishment isn’t offering lunch and doesn’t plan on bringing back tables and chairs anytime soon, but Peggy Ann Bakery is offering takeout, curbside pickup and delivery.

As it stages a phased reboot of its economy, Tennessee has been issuing guidance for individual sectors as they start to reopen. 

In its guidelines for retailers, exercise facilities and close-contact services, which are all listed on the Tennessee government website, the state recommends that businesses ask customers to wear face coverings when applicable. That guideline isn’t listed on the webpage for restaurants.

Gov. Bill Lee signed an executive order in late April that “strongly urged” employees and customers of businesses to wear cloth face coverings in public settings where close proximity to others is anticipated and other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain.

Kirschke noted it’s difficult to eat while wearing a face mask, but personally, he said he would recommend that people wear one into a restaurant until their food arrives.

At Freiberg’s German Restaurant, 203 E. Main St., owner Andreas Herholz said the downtown eatery is also following all of the governor’s guidelines for restaurants. Freiberg’s has opened at 50% capacity, tables are at least six feet apart and servers and staff wear face masks and have their temperature taken daily. Surfaces are also regularly sanitized.

He’s not requiring customers to wear face masks when they come in to eat, adding that it’s not his place to tell them whether to do so or not.

“I’m not the state,” Herholz said. “I’m just a business owner. I don’t tell customers what to do. They have to eat, right? They can’t eat through a face mask.”

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