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Why Mississippi's governor revoked a statewide mask mandate

Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves (R) last week became the first governor in America to rescind a statewide mask mandate, almost two months after imposing it as coronavirus cases rose over the summer.

The decision is a risky one, but one Reeves said is justified by data. The number of people being treated in Mississippi hospitals is down to its lowest level since May. The number of daily confirmed cases has fallen to about half the August peak. And he said the state has plenty of hospital beds available to handle a potential fall surge.

“By all accounts, we have made tremendous progress in our state,” Reeves said in an interview with The Hill.

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Reeves was among the Republican governors who initially resisted issuing statewide mask mandates. While some of his GOP colleagues refused to issue orders, and others went so far as to block local governments from imposing their own requirements, Reeves opted for a different approach: He began requiring masks only in counties where case counts were rising quickly.

That decision, he argued, helped build credibility in the places where he needed his constituents to pay attention to the virus.

“I really believe that if we had issued a statewide mask mandate at that time, the people down in South Mississippi, in Harrison County, would have said, ‘Well, he’s just doing that for the people up in DeSoto County,’ ” Reeves said. “And the ones up in North Mississippi, in DeSoto County, would have said, ‘Well, he’s just doing that because things must be really bad in Harrison County.’ I believe we would have gotten less participation from Mississippians in putting on the masks.”

“I will tell you that I continue to strongly suggest to my fellow Mississippians, particularly those that are in the more vulnerable categories, to please continue to wear a mask in public,” Reeves added. “What you’ll see is that we’ll continue to have great participation by Mississippians and we’ll continue to slow the spread and flatten the curve.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends wearing masks in public, particularly when social distancing is difficult.

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Several of Reeves’s Republican counterparts, in states like Florida and Arizona, have said they will resist reimposing lockdowns or restrictions on businesses even if case counts rise. Reeves said no intervention is off the table if the situation deteriorates.

“If the question that anybody in the press or otherwise begins ‘are you concerned about…,’ the answer is yes. And if the question begins with ‘would you consider in the future…,’ the answer is definitely yes. That’s just because I think this is a dynamic and fluid situation, one in which you’ve got to be willing to adjust as the data leads you to make decisions,” he said.

More than 100,000 Mississippians have tested positive for the coronavirus, according to state statistics, and just over 3,000 have died. About 121 in every 100,000 Mississippi residents contracted the virus in the past week, a per capita rate that puts the state near the middle of all states — better than Alabama, but marginally worse than Louisiana, its two Gulf Coast neighbors.

Reeves visited Washington last week to attend a White House announcement that the Trump administration would ship millions of new rapid COVID-19 tests to state governments. Reeves said the new tests would identify cases even in people who are asymptomatic — something he said will help the state get its outbreak under control.

“Those rapid tests will certainly lead to additional positive cases, sometimes asymptomatic, which we may not have otherwise found. That’s a good thing, by the way, that you find those cases, because you can then quarantine and isolate people so that you minimize the virus taking off,” he said. “I’m not going to be surprised at all as we go into October if we continue to have positive cases. The virus is certainly very contagious, and that’s been proven time and time again.”

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Reeves is among those who may have been exposed to the virus when he stood next to President TrumpDonald TrumpGOP-led Maricopa County board decries election recount a 'sham' Analysis: Arpaio immigration patrol lawsuit to cost Arizona county at least 2 million Conservatives launch 'anti-cancel culture' advocacy organization MORE on Sept. 28. Three days later, Trump tested positive. Reeves said he had been tested on Sept. 28, before he went to the White House, and again on Friday. Both tests came back negative.

The coronavirus crisis is the latest in a string of disasters Reeves has confronted since taking over the governor’s office in January.

Just days into his tenure, riots in the state’s prison system left five inmates dead. Reeves hired a new prison warden to quell the gang-related violence. In February, half a dozen people connected to the state Department of Human Services, including its former director, were arrested in connection with a massive multimillion-dollar embezzlement scheme.

A few weeks later, the third-worst floods in state history struck Central Mississippi. And on Easter Sunday, a swarm of tornadoes across the Deep South damaged thousands of structures; two EF4 tornadoes, including the widest in state history, touched down in Southern Mississippi, claiming a dozen lives.

“We have had quite the tumultuous year. I’ve spent a great amount of time with my director of the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency and my state health officer. This is not at all what I envisioned,” Reeves said. “I spend 90 percent of my day doing other things and the other 90 percent on COVID-19.”