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More GOP governors embrace mask mandates, but holdouts remain

A growing number of red state governors are finally embracing mask mandates as COVID-19 spreads uncontrolled across the entire country.

The scientific community reached the consensus long ago that wearing masks can save lives and dramatically decrease the spread of the coronavirus. 

President TrumpDonald John TrumpGeraldo Rivera on Trump sowing election result doubts: 'Enough is enough now' Murkowski: Trump should concede White House race Scott Atlas resigns as coronavirus adviser to Trump MORE, however, helped to turn mask-wearing into a political statement, and many Republican governors have joined him in resisting calls to mandate their use.

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But the pandemic is getting worse, and quickly.

More than a quarter of a million people in the U.S. have died from COVID-19, and the country is fast approaching 200,000 new cases every day. Experts predict the numbers could go much higher in the cold winter months

After spending almost eight months calling mask orders unenforceable or saying they infringe on people's freedoms, GOP governors in states including Utah, Iowa, North Dakota and Ohio are suddenly changing course.

The Republican ethos of personal responsibility has found its shortcomings in the realities of the pandemic. Hospitals are nearing capacity, and shortages of staff and critical supplies are stretching health systems to the breaking point.  

"No one wants to do this. I don’t want to do this," said Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds (R) when she announced her state's limited mask mandate Monday. 

It was a remarkable about-face from Reynolds, who had previously dismissed mask mandates as "feel good" measures and flouted the guidance of public health experts.

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Reynolds emphasized personal responsibility in compliance with the new order.

"There aren’t enough sheriffs in Iowa’s 99 counties to shut down every noncompliant bar,” she said. “If Iowans don’t buy into this, we lose."

In Iowa, just under 50,000 new cases of COVID-19 were reported on Friday, and the death toll has topped 2,000. Iowa has the third-highest rate of new cases in the nation, and the state's senior GOP senator, 87-year-old Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleySenate GOP open to confirming Yellen to be Biden's Treasury secretary Biden budget pick sparks battle with GOP Senate Grassley returns to Capitol after having coronavirus MORE, announced he is infected on Tuesday.

This week, governors of both parties from Michigan, Kentucky, Ohio, Minnesota, Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana joined forces in a video calling on Americans to continue following health and safety protocols during the holidays.

The video ended with each governor telling his or state to "mask up."

Among those governors was Ohio's Mike DeWineMike DeWineArticles of impeachment filed against GOP Ohio governor over coronavirus orders Cleveland coronavirus cases up 1,200 percent since early October Hogan ramps up criticism of Trump: 'Stop golfing and concede' MORE (R), who has been a longtime ally of Trump and often praised the White House for its COVID-19 response. 

Last week, DeWine stepped up enforcement of a requirement that residents wear masks when in retail establishments, after backtracking over the summer. He also put the onus on businesses and threatened to fine and shut them down for non-compliance.  

In North Dakota, which has the world's highest COVID-19 mortality rate, Gov. Doug Burgum (R) for the first time this week ordered all residents to wear a mask indoors and outdoors if they can't stay physically distant.

Mask mandates could help to slow the spread of the virus if they are followed, but some experts believe more needs to be done. The policies have been too reactive, rather than proactive, they say.

"I worry though, that [mask mandates] by themselves are not going to be enough because of simply how widespread the virus is across the country," said Leana Wen, a public health professor at George Washington University who previously served as Baltimore's health commissioner.  

Wen said along with a mask mandate, limiting indoor gatherings ahead of Thanksgiving and Christmas will be the most effective policy governors can enact.

But despite the speed of viral transmission, even from asymptomatic individuals, some governors remain opposed to a mandate.

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Thirteen states, including epicenters of recent outbreaks such as Nebraska, South Dakota and Wyoming, still do not mandate mask wearing in public, and leaders are digging in to their opposition.

On the national stage, President-elect Joe BidenJoe BidenGeraldo Rivera on Trump sowing election result doubts: 'Enough is enough now' Senate approves two energy regulators, completing panel Murkowski: Trump should concede White House race MORE has implored Americans to wear masks. He has said he will personally call the red state governors and urge them to put politics aside for public health.

"It is not a political statement, it is a patriotic duty," Biden said Thursday after speaking with the bipartisan leaders of the National Governors Association. 

Wen said the prospect of national action could offer mask mandate opponents political cover.

"Biden has certainly telegraphed that he wants a mask mandate. If you set the expectation that one is coming soon, it certainly gives cover to local officials," she said.

But getting the holdout governors to support mask mandates is a tall order. Trump has largely ceded the pandemic response to governors, and the states where the virus is now hitting the hardest are all Republican-led.

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Trump also enjoys widespread support in many of the remaining holdout states, and his refusal to accept the results of this month’s election could make it easier for those governors to resist growing pressure.

In Oklahoma, Gov. Kevin Stitt (R) said he has no plans to issue a mask mandate. If cases continue to rise at the current pace, Stitt, who recovered from the coronavirus earlier this year, said his next course of action will likely be to sign an executive order limiting elective procedures at hospitals. 

In Missouri, Gov. Mike Parson (R) said he is not anti-mask, just anti-mandate, and wants local officials to have control over their own pandemic measures.

South Dakota Gov. Kristi NoemKristi Lynn NoemCOVID-19, masks and the freedom to drive drunk Members of law enforcement sue to halt marijuana legalization in South Dakota Thanksgiving gatherings could inflame COVID-19 crisis MORE (R), a staunch Trump ally who is seen as a possible presidential candidate in 2024, has repeatedly said she will not put any restrictions in place, let alone a mask mandate.

At a rally for Trump last month, Noem said the lack of restrictions made South Dakotans “happy because they are free.”