The COVID-19 pandemic upended our lives and presented new challenges to leaders around the world in 2020. Using this timeline tool, you can explore how the worst public-health crisis in a century unfolded in Mississippi, examine how state, local and public-health leaders responded, and retrace the spread of the novel coronavirus alongside the various policies they enacted.
Note: The “Deaths” figure listed in the circular points starting on March 11, 2020, refers to the total number of publicly reported deaths in Mississippi at that time. Some COVID-19 deaths were reported or confirmed days, weeks or even months after they occurred.
U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams urges Americans to "STOP BUYING MASKS!" in a tweet, echoing other public-health officials who say masks and other forms of PPE needed in health-care settings should be preserved for health workers.
"They are NOT effective in preventing general public from catching #Coronavirus, but if healthcare providers can't get them to care for sick patients, it puts them and our communities at risk," Adams writes in a tweet. Studies will later disprove part of this claim by demonstrating that face masks are effective at preventing public transmission.
The Mississippi State Department of Health confirms the “first presumptive novel coronavirus case” in Forrest County. Gov. Reeves is still in Spain.
Note: "Deaths" listed in the timeline points refer to the confirmed death toll in Mississippi as of the date to which each point corresponds.
Gov. Tate Reeves returns from Spain and issues a State of Emergency proclamation that says "the risk of spread of COVID-19 within Mississippi constitutes a public emergency that may result in substantial injury or harm to life, health, and property within Mississippi."
The order directs Mississippi agencies "to identify and provide appropriate personnel for conduct necessary and ongoing incident related assessments” and gives health-care facilities that have invoked emergency operation plans the power to implement "alternative standards of care" as needed. It also orders the state health officer to "inform members of the public on how to protect themselves and actions being taken in response to this outbreak."
Gov. Reeves issues Executive Order No. 1458, requiring school districts to "immediately begin working with the Mississippi Department of Education to develop and implement distancing learning or other instructional means to achieve completion of essential grade-level instruction for the 2019-2020 school year."
He also directs various government entities to review and identify essential and non-essential state employees and determine which essential employees could work from home.
Black leaders, including NAACP President Derrick Johnson and then-U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, warn that Black Americans face higher risks during the pandemic and that disparities could soon follow.
"We want to make sure we are not looking at another Katrina," says Harris, the future vice president.
MSDH recommends that all bars and restaurants suspend dine-in service and switch to carry-out and delivery orders instead in order to slow the spread of COVID-19. MSDH also recommends that residents not attend funerals, weddings, church services or other community or social events with more than 10 people, but exempts gas stations, grocery stores, pharmacies and food marts.
On the same day, Gov. Reeves orders the GOP primary election for the 2nd Congressional District rescheduled from March 31, 2020, to June 23, 2020, with Executive Order No. 1461.
Tupelo Mayor Jason Shelton explains that, after waiting on Gov. Reeves to take action, he has taken matters into his own hands in his town, instituting limits on indoor dining and public gatherings. Shelton says Reeves should have already instituted such measures.
“From the beginning of this crisis until today, I have been waiting on the governor of the state of Mississippi to lead,” Shelton says. “He has abdicated that leadership role in a state of emergency, and we will no longer wait in Tupelo.”
Those remarks come a day after Hattiesburg Mayor Toby Barker suspended all indoor dining services in his city. "The potential for this to carry on for two to three months is real,” Barker says. “This alone should be a sobering thought for anyone. We are about to be stretched like never before."
In a Facebook Live address, Gov. Reeves says he does not currently plan to issue a “shelter-in-place” order like the ones governors in other states, including neighboring Louisiana, have now issued. “No one at the State Department of Health has recommended that we have a statewide shelter-in-place order," he says.
Rejecting the idea of a lockdown, Reeves says that “Mississippi will never be China,” referring to China’s strict orders that have cut transmission in that country. Reeves expresses doubt that China has actually arrested the spread of the virus, conflating conflicting reports over the initial spread with widely accepted data on the slow trickle of new cases there.
Reeves Issues Executive Order No. 1463, directing all Mississippians to avoid social and non-essential gatherings in groups of more than 10 people until April 17, and orders restaurants, bars, and other dining establishments to suspend dine-in services or allow no more than 10 people inside at a time. He also orders a suspension of all visits to hospitals, nursing homes, and other long-term facilities except in special circumstances such as receiving imminent end-of-life care.
Reeves recommends that businesses implement work-from-home and telework procedures where possible. The governor releases an extensive list of “essential services” that includes things like “religious and faith based facilities,” “firearm and ammunition manufacturers and retailers,” and painting services.
Gov. Reeves issues a supplement to Executive Order No. 1463, clarifying that municipalities and counties may exceed his orders so long as they do not interfere with the operation of essential businesses outlined in the order. Reeves’ clarification bears out the earlier concerns of many mayors, including Moss Point Mayor Mario King,that his new executive order revokes their attempts to order local shutdowns to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Former Mississippi Gov. Ray Mabus calls on Reeves to “immediately invoke a statewide shelter-in-place order and enforce it.”
“It should have been done a while ago, but even now it will help. To do anything less will almost certainly needlessly condemn people to serious illness and death,” Mabus writes in an op-ed that appears in several Mississippi news publications.
Mississippi reports 1,073 total confirmed cases, breaking the four-digit mark exactly three weeks after the first case was detected in Hattiesburg. Dr. LouAnn Woodward sends Gov. Reeves a letter urging him to issue a shelter-in-place order for the state to stem the spread of COVID-19.
"In my opinion, (a shelter-in-place order) is the only additional thing we can do right now to decrease the force of the impact," writes Woodward.
Gov. Reeves issues a “Shelter-in-Place” order for Mississippi with Executive Order No. 1466, joining 38 other states that have implemented similar “Shelter-in-Place” or “Stay-at-Home” orders since March 19.
The order requires people using outdoor space outside their homes to maintain “a minimum of 6 ft. distance” from other people “at all times” and to “avoid gathering in groups of more than 10 people.” It suspends evictions.
The order mandates the closure of “all places of amusement and recreation, whether indoors or outdoors,” including “amusement parks and rides, museums, playgrounds, children’s party and play facilities, all parks including beaches, lakes and reservoirs (but not including walking trails), movie theaters, bowling alleys, and social clubs.”
Reeves’ order requires “non-essential” businesses or nonprofits to “cease operations” except for “minimum operations,” basing those definitions on those listed in Executive Order No. 1463, but clarifying that the prior order “shall be construed broadly to avoid impact or interruption of the delivery of essential healthcare.”
It specifically notes that fitness and exercise gyms, dance studios, clubs, tattoo parlors, spas, salons, barber shop, “and other similar personal care and grooming facilities” are not considered part of “essential healthcare” services and must cease operations. Mississippians will be able to perform “essential activities” needed to obtain food, services or supplies to maintain household safety, such as grocery shopping, the order says.
Gov. Reeves sets the order to go into effect on April 3, 2020, and to end on April 20, 2020.
As Mississippi surpasses 2,000 confirmed cases, MSDH releases the first detailed demographics on COVID-19 impacts, revealing distinct racial disparities harming Black Mississippians. The agency acknowledges that up to a third of tests failed to check for race, potentially concealing a deeper disparity.
The data show that Black Mississippians, who are 38% of the population, now count for 52% of all COVID-19 cases and 71% of all deaths. White Mississippians, who make up 59% of the population, account for just 35% of cases and 29% of deaths.
Gov. Tate Reeves issues Executive Order No. 1477. The governor's new order says "Mississippians are encouraged to stay at home or in their place of residence when not engaged in Essential Activities or Essential Travel" and requires those engaged in such activities to continue maintaining 6 feet of social distancing and to "avoid gatherings in groups of more than 10 people."
Vulnerable individuals, including the elderly and those with "serious underlying health conditions," are encouraged to continue to shelter in place. The order continues to prohibit "all public and private social and other non-essential gatherings in groups of more than 10 people in a single space at the same time where individuals are in close proximity."
All businesses and nonprofits that were previously closed may reopen with few exceptions. The order requires retail businesses to limit the number of customers in their stores to 50% of store capacity and take measures to ensure compliance with social distancing rules.
The order will take effect on April 27 and end on May 11.
Gov. Tate Reeves issues Executive Order No. 1478, amending his Safer-at-Home Order to allow restaurants and bars to resume in-house dining, whether indoor or outdoor. Bars and restaurants must still "take reasonable steps to ensure compliance" with public-health guidelines on social distancing and hygiene protocols as well as conduct daily screenings of all employees and customers upon entry.
Restaurants and bars are limited to no more than 50% capacity and floor plans must "ensure at least six feet of separation between each party/group." The order also allows state parks, local and private parks and outdoor recreational activities to resume with some limitations. The order will take effect on May 7.
Even as other states’ governors grant early releases to non-violent inmates to avoid large-scale spread of COVID-19 in crowded prisons, Gov. Reeves refuses to do so. Mississippi has some of the most crowded prisons in the country.
“Unlike many other states, I do not believe we ought to use the excuse of a pandemic to change our sentencing structure in our criminal justice system,” Reeves says.
At a press conference, Gov. Reeves claims Mississippi has been successful compared to states where the pandemic hit earlier and with more deadly force. He claims that Mississippi had a higher number of cases per million in April than some states because “we were testing more.”
“We learned a lot from this first wave. The one thing that we learned is, unlike the state of New York and the state of New Jersey, Mississippi never had a huge peak. But because we never had a huge peak, we had a prolonged plateau,” the governor says.
Reeves also announces theaters, libraries, museums and sports complexes to reopen starting on June 1 with social distancing and public-health restrictions in place.
As the growing summer surge reaches crisis level, with the highest single day report of infections thus far—611, State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs tells the Jackson Free Press that the overwhelming of the state’s hospital system is inevitable. This would be the first time that any public-health official in Mississippi acknowledged the certainty of the crisis care that would shortly follow, and return in the winter.
“Prepare for not being able to get into the hospital if you have a car wreck, (to) have a heart attack and there not be a ventilator to put you on,” Dobbs warns.
Dr. Dobbs warns that five of the largest hospitals in the state of Mississippi were operating with zero open ICU beds, with eight more operating below 10% capacity, reflecting the massive strain of the sudden summer peak on the state’s hospital system.
"Mississippi hospitals cannot take care of Mississippi patients,” Dr. Dobbs says.University of Mississippi Medical Center Vice Chancellor Dr. LouAnn Woodward says that the surge happened because the state went “from ‘shelter-in-place’ to wide open.” If a mask mandate “is what it takes for the people of this state to realize we are serious and this is a major safety issue, then I support a mandate,” she says.
Mississippi House Rep. Jeramey Anderson of Moss Point also sends Gov. Reeves letter calling on him to issue a statewide mask mandate. “I promise to fully support you in such an effort. … Please require that masks be worn and double down on social distancing,” Anderson writes.
Gov. Reeves signs Executive Order No. 1508, extending the county-level mask mandates until Aug. 3, 2020, and adding 10 more counties to the list: Bolivar, Covington, Forrest, Humphreys, Panola, Sharkey, Sunflower, Washington and Wayne. The total number of counties with mask mandates is now 23.
Reeves also issues Executive Order No. 1509, requiring hospitals to reserve 10% of their capacity for COVID-19 patients in order to continue with elective surgeries.
Gov. Reeves issues Executive Order 1516, which establishes a statewide mask mandate for all Mississippians, including for children at K-12 schools.
“I want to see college football. The best way for that to occur is for us all to realize that wearing a mask, as irritating as that can be, and I promise I hate it more than anyone watching today, is critical,” Reeves says.
Reeves sets the order to take effect on Aug. 5 and originally sets it to end on Aug. 17. But the mandate will last until Oct. 1, helping to drive down case transmission as school opens up.
Gov. Reeves repeats a debunked conspiracy theory that says the coronavirus originated in a lab in Wuhan, China. “Had this virus not escaped, however it occurred, from the lab in China, I don’t know that we’d be having the kind of conversations that we’re having all day, every day. And that’s a fact,” Reeves says.
Reeves’ comment refers to conspiracy theories claiming that the novel coronavirus originated in and may have been engineered in a Chinese lab. Though the virus originated in China, research has proven that the virus was not man-made. On April 30, the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence denied the theory.
Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves ends the mask mandate with Executive Order No. 1525, saying at a press conference that “we should not use the hand of government more than it is justified.”
“We need to trust the people of this country to look after themselves and make wise decisions. Personal responsibility is what this country was founded on. It is what makes this country unique,” Reeves says. He also says that he can respond quickly if the state experiences a significant rise in COVID-19 numbers.
Without sharing his opinion on Reeves’ decision, which comes just over a month before Election Day, State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs warns that Mississippi is “still vulnerable to a rebound, and we are still vulnerable to a surge.”
The number of Mississippi patients hospitalized for COVID-19 falls to a post-summer surge low of 393, a dramatic decline from the nearly 1,000 cases the state recorded in early August. Public-health officials credit the mask mandate with the dramatic decline.
On the same day, MSDH reports the state’s 3,000th COVID-19 death less than two months after reporting the 2,000th.
Despite Gov. Reeves’ Sept. 30 prediction that Mississippians would continue to wear masks after the mandate expired, State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs expresses concern that Mississippians are quickly ditching them.
“Please mask up. Discouraging to see mask use dropping off so rapidly after mandate lifted,” Dr. Thomas Dobbs tweets.
After declining for two months following Gov. Reeves’ statewide mask mandate, hospitalizations for COVID-19 are rising once more 12 days after the governor ended the statewide order. Since the Oct. 3 low of 393 hospitalizations, the number of patients has jumped to 491. Cases in nursing homes also begin rising again.
“Our equilibrium is unravelling. We know what it takes if we will just do it,” Gov. Reeves says.
Public-health leaders warn residents not to have large Thanksgiving gatherings and to keep any holiday dinners to nuclear families only.
“We don’t really want to see Mamaw at Thanksgiving and bury her by Christmas. … “It’s going to happen. You’re going to say hi at Thanksgiving, it’s so nice to see you, and you’re either going to be visiting her by Facetime in the ICU or planning a small funeral by Christmas,” Mississippi State Medical Association President Dr. Mark Horne says.
In DeSoto County, where only one ICU bed remains, the local sheriff refuses to enforce Gov. Reeves’ mask mandate for the county. Other local leaders in the county also vow to defy the mandate.
Gov. Reeves issues Executive Order No. 1531, adding Hinds, Itawamba, Madison, Montgomery, Pontotoc, Tate and Winston counties to the list of counties with mask orders, bringing the total to 22. He sets the orders to take effect on Nov. 18, 2020 and to end on Dec. 11, 2020 unless amended.
On the same day, a first-grade teacher’s assistant dies of COVID-19 in DeSoto County, where public officials continue to push back against Gov. Reeves’ county-level mask orders.
Four of the state’s top health-care professionals send Gov. Reeves a letter calling for a new statewide mask mandate: “Sadly, Mississippi’s healthcare system is again overwhelmed by COVID-19, just as it was this summer. The data shows that the statewide mask mandate you instituted on August 4 worked well, and we are asking you to institute it again,” the letter reads. At a press conference, University of Mississippi Medical Center Vice Chancellor Dr. LouAnn Woodward, one of the signees, says that Gov. Reeves’ “county-by-county approach is not working” and that “we very much believe we should have a statewide mask mandate.”
Gov. Reeves criticizes then-Jackson Free Press reporter Nick Judin after Judin accurately says that the state is exceeding its summer peak for COVID-19 spread.
“When you say that we are currently exceeding our peak, that’s fundamentally inaccurate. That’s just not true. That’s false, in fact,” the governor says, even as the state is reporting record highs for cases and hospitalizations. (Judin is now an MFP reporter.)
After examining more than a century of Mississippi health data and MSDH reports, the Mississippi Free Press reports that COVID-19 deaths in 2020 exceeded the number of “Great Influenza” deaths the state recorded in 1918 during the last major pandemic.
The state also recorded more “excess deaths” in 2020 than any other year, which refers to how many more deaths the state recorded from all causes compared to the prior three years (2017-2019). Mississippi recorded 7,314 excess deaths in 2020. The only year that comes close is 1918, when the state recorded 7,312 excess deaths.
The data show that, as Dr. Dobbs suggested in September 2020, Mississippi likely undercounted COVID-19 deaths by thousands. Mississippi’s mortality rate reached 13.4 in 2020—the highest since 1918.
Defying a CDC advisory, Gov. Reeves issues Executive Order No. 1549, repealing all county mask mandates and most COVID-19 restrictions. The order still encourages Mississippians "to follow the CDC's and Mississippi State Department of Health's guidelines to prevent the spread of COVID-19" and for businesses to "make reasonable, good faith efforts" to comply with CDC and MSDH regulations and guidelines.
Mask mandates will remain in place only in Mississippi's public schools except with some exceptions for "settings when it is not practicable or feasible to wear a face covering." Attendance at indoor arenas remains limited to 50% of seating capacity.
President Joe Biden rebukes Govs. Reeves and Abbott for ending COVID restrictions in their states, particularly mask mandates.
"The last thing—the last thing—we need is the Neanderthal thinking that in the meantime, everything's fine, take off your mask. Forget it. It still matters," Biden says. Gov. Reeves and the Mississippi GOP will later mischaracterize his remarks and claim he described Mississippians as “neanderthals” instead of the governor’s “thinking.”
CDC head Dr. Rochelle Walensky also warns on the same day that “now is not the time to release all restrictions,” calling the next two months “pivotal” to bringing the pandemic to an end in the United States. "How this plays out is up to us," she says.
In a tweet, Gov. Reeves celebrates Mississippi’s continued decline in hospitalizations and daily cases.
“Dear ‘Neanderthals,’ three weeks ago our open state was attacked by the so-called expert in the White House! But data doesn’t play politics: Average daily cases cut in half. Hospitalizations down 421 to 244. ICU beds down 109 to 67. Get a shot and live your life, Mississippi,” he writes.
Gov. Tate Reeves says he is opposed to reinstating mask mandates despite warnings from the Biden administration of a potential new surge, saying there is no need for action because Mississippi is not yet experiencing a surge.
“Let me get this straight—POTUS Biden wants Mississippi to reverse course and reinstate a mask mandate because cases are going up in New York and New Jersey. No thank you, Mr. President,” he tweets.