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‘Defiant’ DeSoto Sheriff Refuses to Enforce Governor’s Mask Order; One ICU Bed Remains

DeSoto County Sheriff Bill Rasco, seen here speaking to U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith during a 2018 visit, is refusing to enforce Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves' mask order for the county despite surging cases and dwindling hospital capacity there. Photo courtesy Desoto County Sheriff Department

The DeSoto County Sheriff Department says it will not enforce Gov. Tate Reeves’ mask mandate or social-distancing orders even as COVID-19 ravages the county. Between the north Mississippi county’s three hospitals, only 52 hospital beds and one ICU bed remain available.

“Sheriff (Bill) Rasco doesn’t force his deputies to wear masks in settings where the host or property owner doesn’t require it. … We will not issue citations for not wearing masks, nor will we enforce Governor Tate Reeves mandate on social distancing,” the sheriff’s department said in a statement yesterday.

Reeves’ orders do not require citations for people who fail to follow social-distancing guidelines. While the governor’s orders do not include an enforcement mechanism, the sheriff department’s announcement likely hurts efforts to encourage county residents to wear masks in one of the hardest-hit parts of the state.

“Emergency management has always been state-managed, locally executed. We are counting on local leaders from across the state to step up and take this virus seriously,” Reeves said in a statement today. “Desoto County has been consistently among the hardest hit.” 

DeSoto County ‘On Fire’ With COVID-19

WMC Action News 5 reported that the Mississippi State Department of Health characterized the county’s actions as “defiance,” but called on law-enforcement agencies to help “in carrying (the governor’s orders) out.” 

“DeSoto County is on fire with cases. … If I lived in DeSoto County, I wouldn’t go out,” the news station reported Mississippi State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs saying.

Since the summer, white Mississippians have accounted for an increasingly larger share, and now a majority, of COVID-19 cases and deaths. About 70% of DeSoto County’s population is white—well above the statewide average of 57.5%.

The pandemic initially had a largely disproportionate impact on Black, native and other non-white Mississippians. Last month, Dobbs told the Mississippi Free Press that he attributes the shift to the fact that Black Mississippians are far likelier to comply with masking and social distancing than white citizens.

“As far as case trends, we have had pretty good uptake by a lot of folks in the Black community with masking and social distancing. … Big parts of the white community, especially in areas that are not heavily affected, have not been as compliant and engaged in masking and social distancing, so I think that makes a big difference,” the state’s top health official said in October.

Mississippi State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs said last month that Black Mississippians are doing a better job complying with masking and social distancing guidelines than white Mississippians. Photo courtesy MSDH

After the governor allowed the statewide mask mandate to expire on Sept. 30 following a successful effort to beat back a summer wave that imperiled hospital systems statewide, many counties saw large upticks in new coronavirus cases. DeSoto County was among the worst.

From Oct. 19 through Nov. 1, about one in every 205 DeSoto County residents tested positive for COVID-19, data at the Mississippi State Department of Health show. In mid-October, Reeves began re-implementing mask mandates for some counties hit hardest by the virus, including DeSoto County.

Mask mandates for DeSoto and 15 other counties had been set to expire yesterday. Gov. Reeves allowed the mask orders to expire in seven counties that had shown improvement.

“Those individuals in those counties really worked hard and made the sacrifice to make sure they’re wearing masks in public places and to recognize what they needed to do, and I’m certainly very proud of them,” Gov. Reeves said during a press conference today.

The governor extended the mask mandate for DeSoto and other counties, though, citing a lack of improvement. Gov. Reeves also added mandates in five counties with recent upticks.

The governor’s current patchwork mask orders apply to counties that have reported at least 200 cases over a two-week period or 500 cases per 100,000 residents over the same period.

During a press conference today, he noted that DeSoto County recorded over a two week period—about the same number that Hinds, Rankin and Madison counties reported combined, despite the fact that those counties have a combined population three times the size of DeSoto’s population.

DeSoto Leaders: ‘End These Executive Orders’

Sheriff Rasco, a Republican who lives in Hernando, recently took part in a meet-and-greet for supporters of President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign. The president has repeatedly flouted his own government’s COVID-19 public-health guidelines, both before and after his own diagnosis. The president has also discouraged social-distancing measures and mocked opponents for wearing masks.

Gov. Reeves is a Republican and a vocal supporter of Trump. While the statewide mask mandate was in effect in August and September, he made two appearances at the White House and several at Republican campaign events, where media captured images of him indoors and in crowds without wearing a mask. 

That drew criticism from both sides of the aisle, with at least one well-known Republican in DeSoto County accusing him of hypocrisy.

Mississippi House Rep. Steve Hopkins, seen here at a rally against President-elect Joe Biden’s victory, is one of three House representatives from DeSoto County who called on the governor to end his executive orders. Photo courtesy Rep. Steve Hopkins

While a number of Republican leaders across the state have taken the virus seriously, some of the party’s most prominent leaders in DeSoto County have not. 

In September, Mississippi House Reps. Steve Hopkins, Dan Eubanks and Dana Criswell, all DeSoto County Republicans, joined a Mississippi Freedom Caucus letter urging Gov. Reeves to “end these executive orders” on COVID-19, masks and social distancing. 

“We ask that you continue to provide the citizens of Mississippi with guidance and information, but that you trust our citizens and our constitution,” the Sept. 22 letter read. “The right to own and manage a business, the right to gather in peaceful groups, and the right to make their right to make their own health care decisions own health care decisions is essential to our way of life, our health and our survival as a nation and a state.”

Two other Republicans joined the letter, including Rep. Chris Brown, who represents Itawamba, Lee and Monroe counties; and Rep. Brady Williamson, who represents Lafayette, Panola and Tallahatchie counties.

“Our freedoms and liberties have been limited for too long. Our people are crying out for relief. They are demanding their constitutional rights no longer be infringed. As fellow believers in freedom and liberty above all, we ask you to hear our citizens and voluntarily relinquish this authority and power back to the people,” read the letter.

Despite the letter’s tone, though, Gov. Reeves’ COVID-19 orders have been relatively lax compared to other states around the nation, and the vast majority of businesses were able to resume most operations by late spring.

Reeves ended the statewide mask mandate five days after the Mississippi Freedom Caucus published its letter. There is no indication that the letter swayed his decisions.

‘The Virus is Still Here’

Another DeSoto County Republican, Mississippi House Rep. Robert Foster, has used social media to push conspiracy theories about the virus. The Hernando farmer challenged Reeves in last year’s Republican primary for governor. Sheriff Rasco made appearances with Foster during that campaign.

DeSoto County Sheriff Bill Rasco, left, made an appearance with then-Mississippi House Rep. Robert Foster, right, when Foster ran for governor in 2019. Photo courtesy Sheriff Bill Rosca

Last month, Foster repeatedly referred to COVID-19 as the “Election Flu,” falsely implying that the media was hyping the virus to hurt Trump’s re-election bid and would stop talking about it after the Nov. 3 election. 

That prophecy did not come true; the day after the election, the U.S. reported 100,000 cases nationwide in a single day for the first time, and daily cases nationally are now nearing 150,000. 

In Mississippi, the seven-day average for daily news cases has risen from around 500 the day Gov. Reeves ended the statewide mask mandate on Sept. 30 to more than 1,000 now.

Across the entire state, only 106 ICU beds remain available out of 888 total. For two days in a row, the state has reported more than 1,200 new cases, including 1,271 today. 

Yesterday, the Mississippi State Department of Health used social media to sound a note of urgency.

“Hospitalizations for COVID-19 are on track toward the crisis level we saw this summer. If we don’t make changes immediately, we’ll see critical shortages of first-line care for the seriously ill and injured,” MSDH twetted. “We know what works: social distancing, small gatherings and masks.”

The same day, Gov. Reeves urged Mississippians to “keep fighting and protecting the most vulnerable in your life” and to “do your best to social distance and wear a mask.”

“I know that we are all tired and ready to move on. But the virus is still here,” the governor said in a statement yesterday. “It’s still working to infect and kill. We’ve gotten far better at dealing with it, and allowing for life to go on. But we’re not all the way there yet.”

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