Despite federal pandemic warnings, Gov. Tate Reeves put an end to Mississippi’s statewide mask and gathering requirements today, leaving the state’s COVID-19 precautions in the hands of counties, municipalities and individual businesses.
“This new order removes all of our county mask mandates, and allows businesses to operate at full capacity without state-imposed rules or restrictions,” Reeves said during a virtual press briefing. “If businesses or individuals decide to take additional precautions, they are absolutely within their right. In fact, it might be smart.”
Reeves said the “heavy hand of government” was no longer justifiable in the face of low COVID-19 transmission and rising vaccinations.
The governor made it clear today that dropping the statewide safety regulations in no way superseded local jurisdictions’ right to continue their own restrictions. He said he anticipated that this order would be one of his last in the COVID-19 pandemic.
Two statewide restrictions remain. Students, staff and teachers in K-12 school environments are still required to wear masks, and indoor arenas are limited to 50% capacity, though restrictions on outdoor arenas and events are now lifted.
The state has seen continued improvement in both new infections and vaccinations. The current seven-day rolling average of new cases is 581, down from highs nearly reaching 2,500 in early January. Hospitalizations have declined to just over 400 total, the lowest since the previous trough last October, before the massive winter spike.
Vaccinations are picking up as well. The Mississippi State Department of Health’s latest report shows 637,853 vaccinations, with just over 400,000 being first doses. With a state population of nearly 3 million, that means just under 15% of Mississippians have been vaccinated, at the lower end of the national average. Mississippi’s vaccine number is now clustered with most states in the mid-teens.
In addition, State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs celebrated that the vaccination effort is moving closer to racial equity.
“We’re also making great strides in our health equity work. We have identified very clearly that African Americans were very much undervaccinated as a percentage of the population, with the lowest weekly value being at 13.5% of vaccine utilized. And that’s in a state with a population of about 38% African Americans. Just this week, we logged 30% of vaccines going to African Americans. So you can see we’ve almost tripled our impact in the Black community,” Dobbs said, further committing to outreach efforts until the racial gap in vaccinations was entirely closed.
Still, in spite of great strides towards vaccination, frontline workers, especially those in retail settings, are ineligible for vaccination unless they qualify on other grounds, leaving them potentially exposed to unmasked patrons without a strong state order to protect them.
Reeves’ decision comes only a day after Centers for Disease Control Director Rochelle Walensky warned against this exact reaction. “These variants are a very real threat to our people and our progress,” she said in a press briefing. “Now is not the time to relax the critical safeguards that we know can stop the spread of COVID-19 in our communities, not when we are so close.”
In response, MSDH released a health advisory strongly urging Mississippians 65 or older, as well as all those with health conditions, to maintain strict isolation in spite of the state’s opening.
“All Mississippi residents aged 65 or older, or 16 and older with serious chronic medical conditions, should avoid all social gatherings outside of the household or any in-person mass gathering, including religious ceremonies, or sporting events, until fully protected by an approved COVID-19 vaccine. Full vaccine effectiveness occurs two weeks after the second dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines and 28 days after the Johnson & Johnson vaccine,” MSDH warned.
Mississippi now joins Texas as the first two states to end all statewide COVID-19 precautions. With the highly infectious B1.1.7 strain confirmed to be present in the state, whether vaccinations or virus will now spread more quickly throughout the population still remains to be seen.