The title is not a pun. While nationwide conversations are underway to improve police-community relations amidst a global pandemic—and while Governor Lee and state leaders aim to reduce prison and jail populations—in Nashville, local leaders have chosen a different path. Metro officials have opted to expand the footprint of criminalization by enlisting law enforcement for mask patrol.

In late June, the Metro Health Department, which governs the greater Nashville and Davidson County areas, issued an order requiring face masks be worn in public settings.

I will let others hash out the veracity of mask requirements. However, citizens should unite in opposition to Metro officials’ chosen method for enforcement of this order. The order mandates that any violation of the mask requirement is a subject to both civil and criminal penalties, including a Class C misdemeanor. In other words, a group of nonelected health bureaucrats have determined to sic the cops on any citizen within its jurisdiction who are observed not wearing a mask. If you are in the greater Nashville area and you are not wearing a mask, then you could find yourself in a Davidson County jail for up to 30 days.

No doubt, this will go a long way to improve police-community relations.

There is further cause for concern in that criminalization of the mask ordinance could undermine its intended purpose. In an attempt to enforce this mandate, law-enforcement officers will be required to interact with people who are not wearing masks, thereby potentially exposing officers to the coronavirus. Moreover, social distancing and other preventative measures that protect against the spread of coronavirus are limited amongst inmate populations. Thus, a citizen jailed on a mask violation could unknowingly be a carrier of the coronavirus and place the entire jail population and correctional staff at risk (or be exposed to the virus themselves). In fact, on July 2, the day before the order’s criminal penalties were to go into effect, it was reported that the Davidson County jail had 180 inmates and 24 sheriff’s deputies test positive for the coronavirus. City officials should support Sheriff Hall’s effort to reduce such exposure by limiting jail bed space to those who pose a real public safety risk. Introducing non-mask wearers to the jail population does not serve that end.

Shelby County has undertaken a similar approach to mask patrol.

Last Saturday, I observed the Peach Truck, a beloved peach stand that sets up residence around Nashville during the summer, run off its space in Elmington Park—where it has been set up all summer—by the Metro Park Police. This process involved a marked police car with lights activated and an officer monitoring the Peach Truck staff while they hurried to place their produce back in their truck and depart the premises. Meanwhile, a volleyball tournament and a soccer tournament were permitted to proceed 50 feet away, because apparently the order exempts those undertaking “physical exertion”.

I appreciate that COVID-19 has created unprecedented challenges to leaders at each level of government. However, this is no time to abandon the principles of liberty, nor does it excuse an authoritarian response in which law-abiding citizens are treated like criminals. The residents of this town deserve better.