Governors across the country are facing increasing pressure to pass statewide mask requirements and mount a more coherent pandemic response as coronavirus cases soar to record levels, daily deaths rise and hospitals in the South and West face a crush of patients.
A growing chorus of local officials and health experts have warned that infections could continue to spiral out of control unless governors issue public health measures that apply to everyone.
“We’ve been begging for a uniform response from the state,” said Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba, a Democrat, of Jackson, Miss., where hospital intensive care unit beds were nearing full capacity.
“It’s of great concern to us here in Jackson, not only because we are the most populous city by a factor of three, but because we’re the capital city, and the capital of health care,” Lumumba told ABC’s “Good Morning America” on Saturday. “Other cities, as their numbers increase, it is likely our hospitals that will receive the increased burden.”
Here are some significant developments:
— Louisiana’s Democratic governor on Saturday announced a new requirement that most people wear a mask in public. The state’s Republican lawmakers, who have opposed coronavirus restrictions, are likely to speak out against the measure.
— Disney World in Orlando, Fla., reopened after having been shuttered for nearly four months, even as Florida continued to report record infections. Testing supplies in the state are running low, and some big labs are taking several days to return results, Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, said at a news conference. He partly attributed the backlog to testing many people without symptoms.
— The White House is pressing the Food and Drug Administration to reverse course and grant a second emergency authorization for the antimalarial drug hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID-19. Scientists have widely criticized the new study that the White House is relying on as “flawed.”
The calls for more decisive leadership reflect a growing urgency at the local level as more signs emerged this week that the United States was losing its grip on the pandemic. More than 131,000 people in the country have died of the coronavirus, and more than 3.2 million confirmed cases have been reported.
The daily coronavirus death toll in the United States has recently increased after months of decline, with more than 4,200 deaths reported nationally in the past seven days and experts warning that the trend would probably worsen. Texas, Arizona and South Carolina have all seen their death toll rise by more than 100 percent in the past four weeks. Five other states — Florida, Mississippi, Tennessee, California and Louisiana — have seen at least a 20 percent jump in that time span.
The country reported a total of 67,211 new confirmed cases Friday, eclipsing the previous single-day record set earlier in the week by nearly 6,000. Cases continued to rise in hard-hit states in the Sun Belt, with Midwestern states also tallying significant increases.
Texas set three records on Saturday: new single-day cases, seven-day average of cases and seven-day average of deaths. Coronavirus-related hospitalizations remained at the state’s high, 10,002.
The situation was dire inside many of Texas’s medical centers. Houston-area hospitals have been keeping patients in their emergency rooms for longer periods as they scramble to find available, staffed beds, the Houston Chronicle reported. Several counties are buying refrigerated trailers to serve as makeshift morgues, according to the Texas Tribune.
The chief medical officer for San Antonio’s Methodist Hospital, Jane Appleby, posted a video warning that young people are not immune from the virus’s most serious effects. She shared the story of a 30-year-old patient who said they had attended a “COVID party,” where people supposedly gather to see who will get infected.
“Just before the patient died, they looked at their nurse and they said: ‘I think I made a mistake. I thought this was a hoax, but it’s not,’ ” Appleby said.
Even amid the pleas for more significant action and the rising infections and deaths, many state leaders have balked at issuing more stringent requirements, saying they would be difficult to enforce.
The country’s approach to the pandemic has been “a tale of two cities,” said former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb. Northeastern states “sought to crush the virus,” he said, while others such as Florida, Texas and Arizona tried to manage the spread to vulnerable people.
“Without a more uniform U.S. approach,” Gottlieb tweeted Friday, “it’ll be hard for either strategy to work.”
Tension over statewide rules was on display in Louisiana on Saturday, when Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards mandated face coverings in public for most people age 8 and older in the face of soaring case numbers. Some members of the state’s Republican-controlled legislature and other conservatives will probably push back on the order.
Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry, a Republican, recently spoke out about potential mask requirements in schools, writing Thursday in a letter to education officials that such coverings should be encouraged but not required when classes resume.
“We believe that mandating students to wear masks creates a situation that may cross the line on liberty, and may also become a tremendous distraction with enforcement,” Landry wrote. “Again, masks may be allowed, even encouraged, and certainly not discouraged, but I am concerned that our teachers and school administrators will be mask-enforcement police rather than educators.”
Edwards’s mask order takes effect Monday and allows parishes to opt out if they log fewer than 100 new cases per 100,000 people over a two-week period. At a news conference, the governor said informal backyard gatherings are strongly contributing to increased infections and that older people have started getting sick again in larger numbers.
Edwards implored residents not to make the mask rule political.
“While I know that this is going to be unpopular with some and controversial with some, we know that face masks work,” he said. “It really is that simple.”
Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves, a Republican, also imposed a mask requirement after the stated recorded more than 5,600 cases in the first eight days of July. His order, announced Thursday, applies to 13 of the state’s 82 counties, including some of Mississippi’s largest cities.
Lumumba, the Jackson mayor, argued the order was toothless unless it covered all state residents.
“The communities here in Mississippi are far too interconnected,” he said. “You can literally go across the street in some areas of our city and find another city adjacent to us. And so it becomes more of a notion than a reality if you have restrictions imposed in your city but people can go across the street and congregate; they can go across the street and find communities where people are not wearing masks.”
A bipartisan group of 10 mayors from Alabama’s largest cities also argued in favor of a statewide mask order, telling Gov. Kay Ivey, a Republican, that it was necessary as cases have climbed steadily in the state. Ivey has previously dismissed the idea.
Other governors have waffled on whether to issue statewide mask requirements, which health experts say are key for preventing transmission.
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican, tried to mandate masks in the spring but backed down after a torrent of criticism. He has since instituted a county-by-county approach, only requiring masks in places where health officials say the virus spread is “very high.” In a rare front-page editorial Saturday, The Columbus Dispatch said the move was “akin to closing the barn door after the horses have escaped.”
In states with statewide mask orders, governors are having trouble persuading people to comply. Dozens of counties in Texas have either refused to enforce or opted out of Gov. Greg Abbott’s order to wear masks in public.
The Republican governor, whose aggressive reopening plan preceded the virus surge in Texas, said new cases were expected to keep climbing after hitting new highs this past week, and warned that the state would have to go back into a shutdown if people continued to defy the mask mandate.
“I made clear that I made this tough decision for one reason: It was our last best effort to slow the spread of COVID-19,” Abbott told KLBK. “If we do not slow the spread of COVID-19 … the next step would have to be a lockdown.”
Other public health efforts by local officials have been met with pushback from governors. In Georgia, which reported a record 4,484 new cases Friday, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, a Democrat, announced she was rolling back the city’s reopening plan to its first phase while officials tried to curb the spike in cases. The move drew an immediate rebuke from Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican, who called it “unenforceable” but stopped short of invalidating it.
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The Washington Post’s Mark Berman contributed to this report.