More than six months into the US’ COVID-19 response, pandemic protesters have taken center stage in a fight against mask mandates and government restrictions in the name of liberty.
In Williamson County, this has been most visible with Tennessee Stands, a nonprofit advocacy group that, according to their website, "serves to protect the individual liberties of all Tennesseans as stated in the Tennessee State Constitution and given to us by God."
Specifically the group is challenging what they see as government overreach in response throughout the pandemic.
Tennessee Stands is a plaintiff in a lawsuit against the State of Tennessee and Gov. Bill Lee, while the affiliated group Recall Williamson, is the plaintiff in a lawsuit against the Williamson County Schools system and the Franklin Special School District as well as their respective top officials, WCS Superintendent Jason Golden and FSSD Director David Snowden. Tennessee Stands also raised money to file a lawsuit against Williamson County Mayor Rogers Anderson with the goal of seeking an injunction on the county mask mandate and removing Anderson from office. And soon after, the group announced their support for the Religious Exemption Protection Act.
The person behind all of the lawsuits is Franklin's Gary Humble.
Tennessee Stands' leader Gary Humble
Tennessee Stands Founder and Executive Director Gary Humble said that his main concern is government interference.
Before creating Tennessee Stands, Humble did everything from founding a microbrewery in Texas to working as a preacher. When the pandemic hit Tennessee in March, Humbles says he was just a regular guy living in Franklin with his wife and three children wondering what the public health crisis was going to become.
It was in July when Williamson County Schools announced its reopening structure that he said was too vague in its timelines. Humble then decided to pull his children out of the school system.
“When that came about this was going to have a tangible impact on us everyday,” Humble said. “My kids were going to be in school in masks for seven hours a day, and no one was thinking about, well, we’ve never done that to kids before. It seems like a reasonable thing to think about, well, what does it do to a young body wearing a mask over their nose for seven hours a day? What does it do to young people emotionally?”
While Humble disagrees with wearing masks personally, he says his legal efforts are focused on whether requiring citizens to wear masks goes against the Constitution. The Centers for Disease Control — and many doctors and health care personnel — say masks can reduce the spread of COVID-19.
“Personally, I don’t think masks are a good thing,” Humble said. “That’s me personally, I don’t think our bodies were designed to wear masks, I don’t think that ever in the history of mankind that we’ve just worn masks. Masks in America, never in the history of our country, masks have never been considered an article of clothing, as some now try to treat it.”
Earlier this year the New York Times published an article about the use of masks in America to help combat the 1918 Flu which also saw some people not comply with the public health measures.
Humble elaborated, saying that some arguments have been made comparing a private business’ requirement of masks as the same as many “no shirt, no shoes, no service” policies that businesses have long enforced.
“My argument against that is that shirts have never been regulated by OSHA or the medical community and neither have pants or shoes, masks have,” Humble said. “Enter 2020 and that’s all different now, but that I said, I reserve the right to make those decisions for myself and my family, and my belief is that everyone else should do the same.”
Humble clarified that he does think that businesses do have the right to require that masks are worn, although he chose not to wear one during our interview in a Franklin coffee shop.
Last week, President-elect Joe Biden said that he will not issue a national lockdown to combat the virus when he takes office in January, something that has worried activists who have criticized responses in states like California.
His response comes just days after CNBC reported that one of Biden's coronavirus advisors, University of Minnesota Director of the Center of Infectious Disease Research and Policy Dr. Michael Osterholm, told Yahoo Finance that shutting down businesses and paying workers for lost wages for four to six weeks could drive down cases to a manageable level. Osterholm also said that those measures were not a recommendation to the incoming administration.
“The need to keep someone safe, and you thinking something is a good idea, does not necessarily translate to you actually having the authority to do so,” Humble said, arguing that neither the president nor the governor have the authority to issue mask mandates or lockdowns.
Humble agreed that the virus is killing many people.
“It doesn’t matter if it kills millions of people, and I say that with a straight face,” Humble said. “That’s on me, that’s our personal responsibility, that’s the type of government that we have. It’s up to us, it’s up to the states and it’s up to us as people, it’s not up to the federal government to determine what to do in this case.”
While Biden has now said “no” to lockdowns, Humble said (in an interview before Biden’s announcement) that Tennessee Stands would not rule out the possibility of a lawsuit against the federal government depending on what measures are pursued under President Biden.
“We most certainly on the legal and Constitutional level would fight that,” Humble said. “And I would tell people, ‘do not comply with this, do not give away your liberty, do not consent.'”
Humble said he wouldn’t support the Tennessee Legislative Assembly passing a bill requiring masks, but he did say that such action would at least be taken by an elected body meant to pass laws and not simply through executive action. Humble added that he is not against government or laws, but did say that he doubts that such a law would be constitutional.
Humble is specifically critical of the Emergency Powers Act which was passed in 2000 and gave the Governor more power to take executive action.
“If you want to give the government these new extraordinary powers, there is a process by which the people can do that, but we haven’t done that, therefore, sir, you don’t have those powers,” Humble said.
Humble argued that allowing the government, either state or federal, to consolidate power under one body, branch or person undermines the Constitution and invalidates the power secured to the people through the Constitution, rights that Humble said, are granted not by the Constitution itself but by God.
"That’s an important distinction, I mean if you think about it, that makes you walk through life or see life through a very, very different lens than someone who believes that all of their rights simply comes from government, because if you believe that you also have to believe that that same government can then take them away,” Humble said. “I don’t believe that. I still believe that my rights come from God and the government only draws its legitimacy because I consent to it through the Constitution.”
“If we give that away then all we have is a ‘We the Government,’ we don’t have a ‘We the People,” Humble said. “That’s my point, and that’s why I’m doing this.”
Humble believes that the U.S. has seen an explosion of growth in big government over at least the last 100 years, and sees the response to the pandemic as yet another power grab away from the people.
This sentiment has long been held by libertarians and other small-government advocates, and as The Hill reported, Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul has vowed to "do everything I can to try to prevent Biden from locking us up and locking us down and forcing us to wear masks forever."
While the idea of wearing a mask “forever” may seem like (and is in fact) an exaggeration, the sentiment is shared with many opposed to efforts to combat the virus, including by Humble, who said that he sees not challenging mandates in court as allowing the government to further slip towards totalitarianism.
That itself may seem dramatic, but Americans on all sides of the aisle have expressed concern over the crumbling of democratic ideals and structures.
On the day that the mask mandate was reinstated in October, a demonstration against the mandate drew hundreds to the Franklin square. The city had recently passed a rule that protests had to be approved first, and the city approved the demonstration as to not infringe on the First Amendment rights of citizens.
The reach of the group has expanded over the past few months gaining 476 followers on Twitter and 5,493 followers on Facebook.
In addition to organizing and speaking at public demonstrations, Humble speaks directly to citizens across the state in more intimate gatherings.
“I love the gatherings in homes where we have 20 or sometimes 40 people, and these are real conversations that for the most part the outcome is, ‘Oh, my God, there’s other people like me,’ because you if you watch the news you can feel really quick like you’re an odd duck and no one cares about this stuff and you should just shut up and wear your mask, but that’s not the case,” Humble said. “There’s a lot of people that are confused and don’t understand, so my goal really is to enlighten people on the Constitution and their constitutional rights.”
Since then Tennessee Stands has publicly criticized the City of Franklin after the city uploaded a “Mask Non-Compliance Reporting Form” on their website which was later removed.
According to FPD Public Information Officer Charles Warner, FPD has not issued any citations for non-compliance of the county’s mask mandate, instead opting for education of the public when the need arises.
In a November Facebook post, Tennessee Stands alleged that the City of Franklin was using codes enforcement officers to “harass” local businesses that were not compiling with the mask mandates and added that “Franklin PD has been complicit in removing citizens from businesses who offer public accommodations over bogus claims of feeling threatened by those not wearing a mask.”
The city disputed those claims saying in a Facebook comment that “the City of Franklin has not cited one person or business for violating the county mask/face covering mandate.”
In an email to the Home Page, the city also denied that they had “harassed” any business, but Humble said that he knows of three businesses who he said have received “harassing” phone calls directly from the city about their lack of compliance.
FPD also said that police officers have responded to at least 15 mask-related complaints since Sept. 1, but they were not able to provide details about what that contact included, outside of reiterating that they have not fined anyone.
Businesses do have the right to ask someone to leave if they refuse to wear a mask and police can trespass someone at the request of a business.
Faith, or lack thereof
Humble argued that mask mandates do not correspond with lower cases of COVID-19, something that the CDC and other health professionals dispute.
Humble added that he does believe that social distancing, good hygiene and not going places when sick are important in fighting the virus.
Humble also said that he believes that the government’s role should be educating the public on best practices and believes that most people will take that information and make the best decisions for themselves and others.
“Look we always have people who don’t care about anything, that’s just human nature, but more often than not, even if it’s to protect their own self-interest, which is what we do as humans, people will act responsibly and do the right thing with the right information,” Humble said. “But can I just be honest with you — in 2020 people don’t trust what they hear anymore. I think in essence that’s probably the biggest problem that we’re facing now.”
Humble specifically called out what he sees as a divisive and biased media landscape that he argues has complicated the public’s view and trust in the science and the measures taken by government bodies.
“It’s very, very hard to just watch the news and trust what’s being said,” Humble said. “It takes a lot of discernment for me to try to discern how much of what I’m seeing lines up with what I can actually believe to be true and what I should and shouldn’t — that’s a sad place to be.”
The uproar and outrage does come at a time when public trust in American institutions was already damaged even before the pandemic.
In 2018, The New York Times reported a growing trend of distrust of medical professionals and institutions, and in 2019 the Pew Research Center reported an increase in distrust of the federal government as well as local governments across the nation and a distrust of fellow citizens.
Williamson County Mayor Rogers Anderson said in an email that in general that a lack of public faith does have an impact even on the local level.
“I do think the cynicism about government and public health officials has, unfortunately, politicized the pandemic,” Anderson said. “Williamson Countians as a whole care about their community and their fellow citizens and want to do the right thing. When trust is missing, it makes it harder sometimes for folks to know what the right thing is.”
Anderson added that while he believes that governance is best done at a local level, that the issue of masks have become too politicized.
“I fear that masks have become way too politicized. This is a public health measure,” Anderson said. “I would hope that citizens will begin considering, even if they disagree with the mandate, that (1) the government has the right, and even the responsibility, to sometimes take measures to protect its citizens and (2) they can show a basic respect and care for their fellow citizens through taking this simple step.”
And while the issue of masks has been thrown in the deep end of the political pool, Humble said that the virus should not be political.
“It’s insane that a virus has become political, but it most certainly has been,” Humble said. “It’s been used in political warfare, it’s been used for control, and that’s a damn shame.”
On Tuesday, an open letter from representatives from nine regional hospitals, including Vanderbilt University Medical Center, Williamson Medical Center and Maury Regional Health, issued a warning that the increase in viral cases is likely to overwhelm hospitals, a trend that can be seen across the nation.
“Today, there are more than 700 patients in Middle Tennessee hospitals with the coronavirus, the most since the pandemic began in March,” the letter reads. “This is a 72 percent increase since Nov. 1. Models are forecasting an additional 10 percent increase in COVID-19 patients by the end of next week.”
“This weekly growth pattern is expected to continue until there is a slowdown in cases. If this trend continues, our hospital systems could soon be overwhelmed, and that would compromise the ability to serve all patients, not just those with COVID-19,” the letter continues. “Currently hospitals are experiencing staff shortages due to both the rising volumes of patients needing care and to the absence of medical professionals who have contracted the virus or are in quarantine because of a COVID-19 exposure. The cause of most of these exposures are coming from outside the hospital — from the rampant community spread of the virus in our state.”
Life and Liberty
While the future is uncertain both in terms of the virus and the national political landscape, it’s evident that any efforts to mitigate the pandemic’s impact on the lives of those in Williamson County will continue to be stress tested by those in defiance.
When asked if he feels any personal conflict for the possibility of negatively impacting the health of others in Williamson County through the efforts of Tennessee Stands, his answer is no.
“I have zero personal conflict about that whatsoever because I 100 percent down to the marrow of my bones buy into the argument that we hold a God-given liberty that shall not be infringed upon by our government,” Humble said. “And it is simply, it is simply not government’s responsibility to mandate any such type of healthcare or protection on this level, it’s simply not.”
“I completely acknowledge that it [COVID-19] exists — I’m not a COVID-denier. People have died from this disease, that is tragic, loss of life is tragic, but I’m not being callous when I say this — people die,” Humble said.
“I’m confident in the fact that I’m not willing to give up my liberty because you think you need to keep me safe, period.” Humble said. “I don’t care what the consequences are of that, I really don’t. If you don’t have the right to do it then by God don’t do it. It’s that simple.”
As of Tuesday the CDC reports that 257,016 Americans have died of COVID-19, with 4,301 deaths in Tennessee and 74 in Williamson County.