Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves allowed the statewide mask mandate to expire today, saying at a Hinds County press conference that “we should not use the heavy hand of government more than it is justified.”
The governor and public-health experts have credited the mandate with a decrease in COVID-19 cases since July 30, when the state hit its second peak. But daily new cases remain elevated above the levels Mississippi experienced during the first wave in July.
“We have to make sure that we do not go back to the more dangerous times of serious hospital capacity issues. I am not extending the mask mandate,” Reeves said today. “But I want to be clear: I still believe that masks work. … I still plan to wear them, and I expect that most people in our state will still wear them often.
The governor said he considers mask-wearing “wise,” but that there is “a difference between something being wise and something being a government mandate.” Though masks have bipartisan support in Mississippi, Reeves has faced pushback for his mask order from a number of conservative activists and politicians.
“We have to reserve (government mandates) for the most critical, most dangerous moments. As I’ve said throughout, as a general rule, guidelines are better than mandates. We need to trust the people of this country to look after themselves and make wise decisions,” the governor said today. “Personal responsibility is what this country was founded on. It is what makes this country unique.”
The United States’ response to COVID-19 also makes the country unique, though. The U.S. ranks among the countries with the worst outbreaks and mortality rates during the pandemic, accounting for only 4% of the worldwide population but nearly a quarter of all confirmed deaths. Last week, the U.S. surpassed 200,000 novel coronavirus deaths—and Mississippi has been one of the hardest hit states.
‘We Are Still Vulnerable to a Rebound’
Mississippi State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs struck a note of caution, though, saying that, while COVID-19 trends have “stabilized,” several counties are reporting increases in new cases, including Jones, Lamar and Lee counties. He and the governor also said the state is keeping an eye on Lafayette, DeSoto, Harrison, Jackson and Hinds counties.
“We are still vulnerable to a rebound, and we are still vulnerable to a surge,” Dr. Dobbs said at the press conference today.
The state reported 552 newly confirmed COVID-19 cases and 12 additional deaths today.
National public-health experts have warned that the U.S. could see a brand new surge in novel coronavirus deaths in the fall and winter months—with some predicting as many as 400,000 total deaths nationwide by December’s end.
Though the state’s daily average in new cases had trended down since August, the number of new cases has been flat for the past several weeks.
“If we’re flat, we can go up or down, so it’s going to be dependent on choices we make collectively and individually. … Going into the colder weather, we have more challenges,” Dr. Dobbs said. “People will be indoors more and have more indoor get-togethers around the holidays. We are watching it daily, closely. If we really take it seriously, what we did over the past couple of months, it worked, and so I don’t know why we would just quit doing it and have to go back and do some of the things we did previously.”
If the situation does not continue to improve, Gov. Reeves said, then “it gives us more opportunities in the future should we need to add specific mandates in specific counties.”
Before he issued a statewide mask mandate in early August, Reeves issued mandates in some of the worst-hit counties beginning in early July, but cases continued to surge and hospitals across the state became overwhelmed. Reeves issued the mask mandate on Aug. 4, several days after the second wave peak of 1,775 cases on July 30.
“I don’t think you’re going to see a significant decline in the number of people wearing masks. I think the vast majority of people have bought into the idea that they do work, that they do help reduce transmission,” the governor said today. “I have confidence that the vast majority of my fellow Mississippians understand and will continue wearing masks, particularly when they are indoors or when social distancing is not allowable or possible.”
When a reporter asked if that meant the state is moving from a mask mandate to a mask “honor system,” Reeves said Mississippi is “moving to an executive order wherein I trust the majority of the people of Mississippi to do the right thing.”
The July surge in novel coronavirus cases came after Gov. Reeves began relaxing social-distancing requirements across the state in May and June—months before he ever issued a mask mandate. After he relaxed those rules, many Mississippians across the state took a more relaxed posture toward the pandemic rather than continuing to socially distance.
Mississippi Schools Report Worst Week for New Cases
Gov. Reeves said mask mandates will remain in effect in the state’s K-12 schools, though. Today, the Mississippi State Department of Health reported that 459 new novel coronavirus cases among students, teachers and staff—the most of any week since schools began reopening in late July and early August.
Since schools reopened, the state has confirmed a total of 2,776 COVID-19 cases and schools have ordered more than 34,000 quarantines. Last week, schools quarantined a record 5,508 students, teachers and staff to quarantine at home for two weeks either for COVID-19 infections or exposures last week—the most quarantines in a single week.
Despite the increase in school cases, Gov. Reeves said the school re-opening strategy has been successful and that keeping students in school “is critical.”
“I would urge schools that have been closed to open back up. It can be done safely,” the governor said, referring to a handful of school districts that opted for virtual instruction instead of traditional in-class instruction.
The governor increased the capacity for attendance at extracurricular school events, like football games; stadiums can now fill up as much as 50% of their capacity at high-school events. The new executive order, effective today, does not change the current restrictions at college and university stadiums, though.
“I hope Mississippians understand we are very fortunate in this state. There are states where there is no high-school football going on. In North Carolina, there are no youth sports going on,” Reeves said, referring to his recent trip to campaign with the Republican candidate for governor there.
North Carolina, where Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper issued a mask mandate in June, has experienced less severe COVID-19 outbreaks than Mississippi since the pandemic hit the United States.
During his press conference today, Gov. Reeves praised Trump, claiming that he expects “a vaccine is going to come sooner rather than later, certainly by the end of the year and even sooner than that.” However, while Trump has pushed the CDC to rush a COVID-19 vaccine out before the election, public-health experts—and vaccine manufacturers—have said it is unlikely that a COVID-19 vaccine will be broadly available before next year.
No Plan for Mask Mandates at Polling Places
The Mississippi mask mandate’s expiration means that, for now, Mississippi voters can expect to enter polling places on Nov. 3 alongside other voters who may or may not be wearing masks. Today, Reeves said he was “fully confident” that Mississippi voters will be able to go to the polls “safely.”
He cited a lack of problems during recent low-turnout special elections and primaries in some counties as evidence that Mississippians can vote safely in-person during a pandemic. But far more Mississippians will show up at the voting booth on Nov. 3, when the presidency, a U.S. senate seat, and two State Supreme Court seats will be on the ballot.
Gov. Reeves did not say whether he would consider requiring voters to wear masks at the voting booth, but noted that any Mississippian over age 65 can request an absentee ballot no questions asked.
“Everyone needs to wear a mask,” Dr. Thomas Dobbs said today. “As far as the balance of liberties and public health, I understand that’s a debate that has happened. It’s so important I think for everyone to please wear a mask when we go to elections. If you look at the number of people who are older who got coronavirus and died, we had a lot of deaths. And we know a lot of older people are going to go out to vote and this is a time when older people are going to be more at risk.”
While other states, including Louisiana and Alabama, have made it easier for people to vote absentee, by mail or early amid the pandemic, the Mississippi Legislature declined to take steps like making absentee voting available for all Mississippians when it passed a COVID-19 related bill earlier this year.
The only absentee allowance the state has made for people who do not meet the pre-existing absentee voting requirements (like being 65 or older or out-of-town on election day) is for people who either have COVID-19, are caring for someone with COVID-19, or are under a doctor-ordered quarantine.
Earlier this month, the Mississippi Supreme Court rejected a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi and the Mississippi Center for Justice that asked the court to allow no-excuse absentee voting because of the dangers in-person voting presents amid a pandemic.
This evening, though, a bipartisan group of three Mississippi House Representatives filed a bill to authorize in-person, no-excuse absentee voting for the November election. If the Legislature adopts the bill, and Gov. Reeves signs it into law, Mississippians would be able to begin casting absentee ballots in-person at their circuit clerk’s office beginning on Oct. 5.
The bill does not allow mail-in absentee ballots with no excuse, though; the current rules for mail-in absentee voting would still apply. Nationally, President Donald Trump has spread false claims that mail-in ballots are more prone to fraud, but there is no evidence to support that claim—or to support claims of mass voter fraud in any form.
The mask mandate expiration in Mississippi comes the day after Trump mocked Democratic opponent Joe Biden for wearing masks at public events during last night’s presidential debate.
“Every time you see him, he’s got a mask,” Trump said disdainfully last night. “He could be speaking 200 feet away from it, and he shows up with the biggest mask I’ve ever seen.”