Masks win political momentum despite GOP holdouts

The political momentum behind mask mandates is growing quickly, with more governors issuing orders that people wear face coverings in public and major retailers uniting behind them.

Cloth masks or face coverings are now required in public in about half of the states, but some governors — mostly Republicans — are still resisting calls to issue statewide mandates, leading to a patchwork of rules across the country. 

Public health experts for several weeks now have pushed for states to issue masking requirements to stop the spread of COVID-19 and help Americans to return to some semblance of normalcy as the search for a vaccine continues.

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“I believe we need a national requirement, but in the absence of that, we need every state to adopt a policy as soon as possible,” said Howard Koh, a former health secretary in the Obama administration, adding that uniformity is needed because “the virus does not respect city, county or state borders.”

“We do not have a vaccine and until the FDA approves one, masks are the best vaccine we have,” he added.  

In the past week, Republican governors in Alabama and Arkansas and Democrats in Colorado and Louisiana issued new rules requiring masks be worn in public when social distancing isn’t possible. Mandates in Montana and Mississippi also took effect this week in dozens of counties. 

Walmart, the largest retailer in the country, announced this week it would require masks in its stores, along with CVS, Best Buy and others, further shooting the idea into the mainstream.

Arkansas became the latest state Thursday to require mask-wearing in public, with Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) citing an increase in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations. 

“The number of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths are numbers that speak for themselves, and indicate that we need to do more,” Hutchinson said Thursday. 

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“This whole fight against COVID-19 is likely to get harder and not easier, and we have to meet the challenge together and everyone must do their part and this is a way to enlist the support of everyone in this fight,” he added. 

Hutchinson isn’t alone in his realization that more needs to be done to contain the fast-spreading virus. As cases continue to increase in dozens of states, governors have embraced mandates they once opposed in desperate attempts to curb rising infection and hospitalization rates. 

“I still believe this is going to be a difficult order to enforce,” Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey (R) said when announcing a new masking requirement that will take effect Thursday at 5 p.m. 

“I always prefer personal responsibility over a government mandate, and yet I also know with all my heart that the numbers and the data over the past few weeks are definitely trending in the wrong direction,” she said.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) also issued a statewide requirement earlier this month after strongly opposing doing so earlier. 

Dozens of states are reporting increases in COVID-19 cases which experts say is tied to reopening too early after spring lockdowns and lax following of social distancing guidelines. 

The U.S. has averaged 62,000 new cases a day, nearly triple the average from a month ago. While President TrumpDonald John TrumpUS reimposes UN sanctions on Iran amid increasing tensions Jeff Flake: Republicans 'should hold the same position' on SCOTUS vacancy as 2016 Trump supporters chant 'Fill that seat' at North Carolina rally MORE has said increased cases are because of increased testing, experts note that the percentage of tests coming back positive is also rising, an indicator of growing spread. 

While mounting evidence shows face coverings can stop the spread of COVID-19, governors have been slow to implement requirements. The first states issued mandates in April. Three months later, half of the states still don’t have requirements, but most allow localities to set their own rules, and many have done so. 

Oklahoma, Arizona and Florida are some states that don’t have statewide rules, but localities have been allowed to take stronger actions. 

Public health experts argue requirements need to be uniform to be as effective as possible. 

However, the Trump administration has no plans to issue a federal mandate, and half of the states still have no statewide mandates, though most let localities pass their own. 

“We leave it to localities to make the decisions with regard to face coverings, and the CDC guidelines remain the same today: recommended, but not required,” White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said Thursday, referring to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines. 

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Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) stunned observers Wednesday when he issued an executive order overriding mask requirements issued by localities, even as COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations increase in the state. 

“Previous executive orders — and now this order — state no local action can be more or less restrictive than ours,” Kemp spokesperson Candice Broce said in a statement. “We have explained that local mask mandates are unenforceable.”

Georgia was one of the first states to emerge from the spring lockdowns. Kemp has encouraged people to wear masks, but has emphasized personal responsibility over government mandates. 

Iowa and Nebraska are the only other states that prohibit cities and counties from issuing their own mask rules. Both have GOP governors.

Polls show Americans are gradually coming around to wearing masks in public. 

A record-high 86 percent of those surveyed in a recent Gallup poll said they wore a mask outside their homes in the past seven days, compared to 64 percent who said the same in April.

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However, polls also show Democrats are more likely to wear masks than Republicans, signaling that the issue has become political. 

President Trump wore a mask during a trip to Walter Reed Hospital last weekend, prompting hope from health officials that it would encourage his supporters to do so as well. Trump had repeatedly declined to wear a mask even as GOP lawmakers had urged him to do so to set an example to the country. 

CDC director Robert Redfield this week went as far as saying that the coronavirus crisis could be contained in the next several weeks if everyone in the country would wear masks starting now. 

“I think we’re being very clear now,” Redfield said during a livestreamed interview Tuesday. “Now’s the time to wear a mask.”