Mask-wearing becomes political even as some governors ease resistance

Some state and local leaders are softening their resistance to issuing public masking requirements as emerging research shows face coverings can slow the spread of COVID-19, even as others are doubling down on their opposition.

The debate over whether to require face coverings in public has become increasingly politicized in recent weeks, even as COVID-19 cases have increased in the Sun Belt and some other parts of the country as lockdowns across the country have greatly eased.

Governors in southern, conservative states have been reluctant to issue statewide mandates on public mask-wearing, and in some cases have prevented local governments from taking stronger actions. 

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“We want to make sure that individual liberty is not infringed upon by government and hence government cannot require individuals to wear a mask,” Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) said Wednesday in an interview with Waco television station KWTX. 

Abbott, who frequently recommends mask-wearing, has resisted calls from local leaders to require it, and has also prohibited them from enforcing local orders with civil or criminal penalties on individuals. 

However, two Texas counties on Wednesday announced businesses must impose a mask rule on staff and customers or face fines of up to $1,000, which Abbott said would be allowed under his executive order.

“Businesses … they’ve always had the opportunity and the ability, just like they can require people to wear shoes and shirts, these businesses can require people to wear face masks if they come into their businesses. Now local officials are just now realizing that that was authorized,” he said. 

Texas has experienced a rapid increase in COVID-19 cases that experts say is likely related to the state's decision to lift lockdown measures ahead of Memorial Day. The state reported 3,129 new COVID-19 cases Wednesday, its largest single-day increase. Nearly 2,800 people were hospitalized with COVID-19 as of Wednesday, a new high for the state. 

In Arizona, which has also seen a surge in cases, Gov. Doug Ducey (R) on Wednesday again resisted calls to issue a statewide masking requirement, but in a reversal, said he would allow local governments to take their own actions. Larger cities including Phoenix and Tucson plan to do so.

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“Every Arizonan should wear a face mask,” he said at a Wednesday press conference. “This is an issue of personal responsibility, and we're asking Arizonans to make responsible decisions to protect the most vulnerable in our communities.” 

While a number of coastal states and cities led by Democrats have strict mask requirements when in public settings such as grocery stores, where staying six feet away from others may not be possible, some Republicans appear to see it as a restriction on freedom and have emphasized individual responsibility. 

Trump has almost exclusively declined to wear a mask, and has criticized his political rival Joe BidenJoe BidenTrump campaign emails supporters encouraging mask-wearing: 'We have nothing to lose' Cuba spells trouble for Bass's VP hopes Democrats want Biden to debate Trump despite risks MORE, the Democratic candidate for president, for wearing one. 

“I see Biden. It’s like his whole face is covered,” Trump said in an interview published Thursday in The Wall Street Journal. “It’s like he put a knapsack over his face. He probably likes it that way. He feels good that way because he does. He seems to feel good in a mask, you know, feels better than he does without the mask, which is a strange situation.”

The debate of whether to wear masks has sparked division on Capitol Hill, where two Republicans this week refused to follow a new directive from House Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiHillicon Valley: Trump backs potential Microsoft, TikTok deal, sets September deadline | House Republicans request classified TikTok briefing | Facebook labels manipulated Pelosi video Trump says he's considering executive action to suspend evictions, payroll tax Trump won't say if he disagrees with Birx that virus is widespread MORE (D-Calif.)  

“I consider masks much more effective at spreading panic and much less effective at stopping a virus,” said Rep. Tom McClintockThomas (Tom) Milller McClintockHouse votes to remove Confederate statues from Capitol Cook shifts 20 House districts toward Democrats Democrats start cracking down on masks for lawmakers MORE (R-Calif.), during a hearing yesterday. He later put on a mask. 

Polls have shown Democrats are more likely to wear masks in public than Republicans; a Gallup poll conducted in April found 75 percent of Democrats have worn a mask in public, compared to half of Republicans. 

However, emerging evidence shows face coverings can slow the transmission of COVID-19. A study published in Health Affairs this week found that mandated use of face masks in public was associated with a reduction in the daily COVID-19 growth rate in 15 states and Washington, D.C., compared to states that did not have such requirements.

Governors of other states experiencing outbreaks, including Henry McMaster (R) of South Carolina, have recommended but don’t require people to wear face masks in public. City council members in Columbia, S.C., however, are reportedly considering a requirement for the state’s largest city.

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey (R) hasn’t issued a statewide mask requirement for the public, but employees of certain businesses are required to wear them while working. 

In Montgomery, Ala., which has the largest COVID-19 outbreak in the state, Mayor Steven Reed (D) issued an executive order Wednesday requiring face coverings be worn in public after a similar ordinance failed to pass the city’s council. 

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantisRonald Dion DeSantisJournalist covering Trump trip to Florida tests positive for coronavirus Governors declare emergency as hurricane bears down on Florida Florida newspaper editorial board asks DeSantis to issue statewide mask order: 'We're dying here' MORE (R) has also resisted a statewide mask requirement, though localities can require their use in public. On Tuesday, he encouraged people to wear masks when social distancing isn’t possible but said it would not be a requirement. 

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“In terms of forcing that under penalty of criminal law, we're not going to be doing that. I think it would be applied unevenly and I just don’t think it would end up working,” DeSantis said at a press conference. 

The state is also seeing an increase in cases, which DeSantis ties to increased testing. However, public health experts note that the percentage of tests coming back positive is also increasing, a sign of ongoing community transmission. 

In Nebraska, where the rate of COVID-19 transmission has been declining, Gov. Pete Ricketts (R) encourages the use of masks in public but has threatened to withhold federal relief funding from localities that require their use in government buildings.

“The governor encourages people to wear a mask but does not believe that failure to wear a mask should be the basis for denying taxpayers’ services,” spokesman Taylor Gage told the Omaha World-Herald.

Not all Republican governors have resisted masking mandates. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker were early to issue wide-ranging mask requirements in their states. 

Meanwhile, Democratic governors are mandating mask requirements or say they are seriously considering it. 

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As cases continue to climb in North Carolina, Gov. Roy Cooper (D) said this state leaders are considering making mask-wearing in public settings mandatory but has not done so yet. 

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown (D) announced Wednesday that people living in seven of the state’s counties will have to wear masks in public beginning June 24 as the state sees an increase in cases. 

Democratic governors of states hit hard early in the pandemic including New York, Washington and New Jersey have required the use of face coverings in public for several weeks. 

California Gov. Gavin NewsomGavin NewsomTrump vows challenge to Nevada bill expanding mail-in voting Fear first, education last? Coronavirus death toll passes 150,000 MORE (D) issued a statewide mask order Thursday amid an increase in COVID-19 cases in his state. 

“Science shows that face coverings and masks work,” Newsom said Thursday. “They are critical to keeping those who are around you safe, keeping businesses open and restarting our economy.” 

Updated at 5:47  pm.