SPRING HILL, Tenn. — If you drive south on Main Street, two things change as you cross the county line. 

First, the asphalt shifts from a dull gray to a burnt tan. Second, the masks fade away.

This is Spring Hill, a commuter town of about 45,000 on the outskirts of the Nashville suburbs, where a nationwide debate over coronavirus masks has become a street-by-street struggle. Because Spring Hill straddles a border between two counties, masks are required in businesses and public spaces in the town’s northern half, but not in the southern half. In some places, the distinction is a matter of only a few feet.

The end result, locals say, is confusion and frustration. Some residents who are wary of the virus drive to the north to shop in relative safety. Others, furious about bossy government mandates, drive south to support businesses where masks remain optional.

“I have been screamed at by both sides,” said Spring Hill Mayor Rick Graham, who has no authority over mask rules. “We are a city divided, and it is terrible for our businesses.”

This split has made Spring Hill a microcosm of Tennessee’s disjointed decision-making on mask mandates, and in some ways, a heated American culture war that exacerbates the coronavirus outbreak nationwide. Tennessee is one of a shrinking minority of U.S. states that don’t require masks despite strong scientific evidence they are one of the most effective tools against coronavirus.

Gov. Bill Lee rejected calls for a statewide mask mandate and instead delegated this decision to Tennessee’s 95 county mayors, insisting residents will be more likely to follow mandates if they come from local officials. About a third of counties have mandates, but masks remain optional in most rural counties, where the virus is an escalating threat.

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The city of Spring Hill, which spans Williamson and Maury counties, is stuck in the middle. Williamson County Mayor Rogers Anderson mandated masks in July within days of the governor permitting him to do so, but Maury County Mayor Andy Ogles shunned mandates as unconstitutional, promising not to “infringe on your liberties.”

“We are debating masks when we should be discussing liberty, freedom and personal responsibility. I took an oath to defend our constitution and I will do so,” Ogles said as he announced his opposition to a mandate. He did not answer a request for comment.

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‘A city divided’ … or is it?

The people of Spring Hill may be divided on masks, but they aren’t divided on division.

In a series of interviews over the past week, nearly a dozen Spring Hill residents and business owners broadly criticized how the state government punted mask decisions to county mayors, dooming the town to be split down the middle. Spring Hill would be better served by a single decision from the state government or a local decision by city officials that brings cohesion to the standards for masks, they said.

Not a single person who was interviewed spoke in favor of a town with two sets of rules.

Harmony Reeves, 32, the owner of Fireflies Boutique in the Maury County half of town, who does not wear a mask and avoids businesses that require them, said it would “make life easier” for all Tennesseans if mask rules were consistent.

If the governor issued a statewide mandate — a decision Reeves would oppose — she would still respect he was “at least taking control.”

“Although I’m excited that Maury County has decided not to wear masks, I don’t agree with Lee’s decisions to push it off onto other people. I think that was a weak move by him,” Reeves said. “Even though the cookie crumbled in my favor, I think it was his way to get out of being held liable.”

As Reeves greeted mask-less customers at her store on Monday, Spring Hill retiree Martha Eisen was knitting in a shady pavilion at a public park about half a mile away.

Eisen, 67, lives in Maury County but now exclusively shops in Williamson County to minimize her exposure to the virus. She said she grows most frustrated with businesses that claim to require masks but don’t enforce their own rules when customers rebel.

“I think the entire country should be mandated to wear masks for three months, or six months — whatever they decide will stop the pandemic. This everybody-can-do-what-they-want business is ridiculous,” Eisen said. “Nobody wants to be the bad guy. Except, they wouldn’t be the bad guy. They’d actually be the person saving lives.”

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‘It’s got to be all or none’

Graham, the Spring Hill mayor, would dare to be the “bad guy” if he could be.

When Lee used an executive order to empower county mayors to issue mask mandates, he did not extend the same authority to most city mayors, leaving them unable to tackle the issue. Graham said the Williamson County mayor consulted him before making a mask decision impacting half of Spring Hill, but the Maury County mayor did not.

If Graham had any authority over the issue, he would require masks citywide.

“It’s got to be all or none for the city,” Graham said. “I’m sure a lot of my friends would blast me for that … but it’s the least we can do to wear a mask from your car into the restaurant to your dining table.”

Victor Lay, the Spring Hill city administrator, said he regularly receives angry complaints about masks, worn or not worn, from residents who don’t know or care that City Hall is powerless on the issue.

While this frustration is a clear result of Tennessee’s county-by-county approach to masks, Lay questioned if the town offers a preview of an even larger debate: If the government eventually makes a coronavirus vaccine mandatory, will all Tennesseans — or all Americans — end up split like Spring Hill?

“I absolutely think they will be,” Lay said. “And what you might find is that some of those who are pro-masks will roll to the other side because that may be too much intrusion for them.”

Brett Kelman is the health care reporter for The Tennessean. He can be reached at 615-259-8287 or at brett.kelman@tennessean.com. Follow him on Twitter at @brettkelman.

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