For the first two weeks of the pandemic, Smith County Mayor Jeff Mason did what Trump told him to. Then, as the state opened up, the mayor of the rural county decided that the idea of a new normal didn’t sit right with him. As Gov. Lee gave county mayors more power over health regulation, Mason rejected this newfound authority along with several other colleagues in the region like Putnam County’s Rob Porter. But the pressure did come. From state bureaucracy via phone calls and literature pushes. From the Upper Cumberland Health Department in their weekly missives. From a handful of constituents anywhere he went (the spectre of Al Gore still haunts the county seat of Carthage after all). But Mason did his research.
Rattled by the contradictions in medical journals about every protocol from mask wearing to outdoor events, he not only stayed the course but also advocated for business as usual. “I know my people,” Mason said. “We are the epitome of the American spirit. We’re a rugged individual group that doesn’t like to be told what to do, especially by an overbearing government.” As other counties were closing public swimming pools and canceling events, the Smith County Fair and the William Walton Harvest Festival remained on the calendar, attracting reduced but still impressive crowds with neither igniting a Covid surge.
Yet, while Mason’s office was inundated by calls from bureaucrats telling him how to do his job, no one has contacted him to remark on the Covid death spiral that wasn’t. As of press time, Smith County can count 6,163 Covid cases and 84 deaths among 20,157 residents. In comparison, Tennessee’s four major cities and adjacent suburban counties, which jumped at the chance to mask their populations and limit their hospitality businesses have, like Smith County, all hovered at an infection rate of 30% or more and death rates of .3% (several Smith County Covid deaths occurred in nursing home outbreaks in neighboring counties, but are included due to health department protocol). Likewise, Smith’s numbers waxed and waned the same as the rest of the state with two winter peaks and spring respites.
Most leaders in Tennessee’s biggest counties went full Cartman with their newfound authoritah. Several more caved to the bandwagon, letting fear of reprisal or for their political futures cloud their judgment. But Mason stood strong even though he is up for re-election this year and faces a primary challenge because he didn’t want to see panic destroy the place he calls home. “We didn’t quit living,” Mason said. “We understood something was going on and we took our precautions, but we kept living.”