How many people are wearing masks?

When it comes to wearing masks, Charity Menefee of the Knox County Health Department has heard anecdotes on both sides.

“A lot of people” have reported seeing masks in public, while there have been “some cases” of people not following guidelines, she said during a media briefing Monday.

It got me wondering: How many people are actually wearing masks?

With a little bit of patience, hand sanitizer and a mask of my own, I witnessed an overwhelming number of people not wearing masks Monday in some of the busiest areas around.

I visited Market Square, Gay Street, West Town Mall, downtown Gatlinburg and the Kroger in Bearden to see how many people out of 100 in each area were following guidelines.

In one of these cases, the answer was only three.

West Town Mall

I understand my stat gathering was not exactly scientific, but surely there is some truth behind what I witnessed.

My first stop was the recently reopened West Town Mall, where counting 100 people was no problem at all.

I started on one side of the mall and walked straight with a steady pace, counting every person I came across and whomever could easily be seen inside stores.

After I got to the end, I went to an entrance and counted the remainder of the 100 to make sure nobody was counted twice.

My results? Nineteen out of 100 people were covering their faces.

I decided not to count people who had masks on their heads or around their necks. If you have a mask, it’s important you wear it.

Market Square and Gay Street

The next stop was Market Square, which required a little bit more patience. With some help from photographer Calvin Mattheis, I counted the first 100 people in sight while standing in the shade at the south end of the square.

Again, people not wearing masks properly were not counted as actually wearing masks. People enjoying meals on patios were ignored, as they had to remove their masks to eat.

A total of just six people were wearing masks on Market Square, and Gay Street was not much better.

We stood at the Regal Riviera theater and counted everyone between Union and Clinch avenues. Only 12 people out of 100 were wearing their masks on Gay Street.

Kroger in Bearden

When I told Calvin I was going to Gatlinburg, he politely declined to accompany me. We parted ways, and I decided to stop at my neighborhood Kroger in Bearden before hitting the road.

From inside my car, I kept an eye on the exit door for people wearing masks.This was, without a doubt, the most promising place.

Forty-nine out of the 100 people I saw leaving Kroger were wearing masks. But still, this was less than half.

Downtown Gatlinburg

I haven’t spent much time in Gatlinburg, so there’s not much for me to compare my experience to. But nothing I witnessed Monday indicated we are living in a pandemic.

I felt silly paying $10 for parking, as I didn’t even need to be downtown for 10 minutes in order to count 100 people. Heck, I might have counted them in five.

Only three people out of the 100 I saw between Pucker’s and Gatlin’s Mini Golf were wearing a mask. And those three people were together.

Out of the 500 people I counted throughout the day, only 89 were wearing masks. That’s roughly 18%.

‘It’s to protect each other’

Menefee continued to stress the importance of wearing masks during Monday’s news conference.

“It’s to protect each other in this situation where people who may have the disease and not know it and could be spreading it,” she said.

To put that in perspective, six people in Market Square were working to protect the other 94 people we saw. But no one cared enough to protect them.

“We always put these measures in our public’s hands and, for the most part, people continue to do what they’re supposed to do,” Menefee said. “This isn’t over. And the more that people cooperate and continue to do what we’re asking, hopefully that curve will stay flat and we can continue to move through these phases.”

If we don’t do what we’re supposed to do and the virus spreads, she said, the health department may have to revisit how to move forward.

Source: Knoxville News Sentinel, by Ryan Wilusz

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Published May 7, 2020