Masks spark political, legal battles in US as virus marches on

Washington (AFP) –


The United States' COVID-19 epidemic is once more blowing up at an exponential rate, even as leaders of some of the worst-hit states resist mandatory mask measures to stem the spread.

Health authorities reported 78,000 new cases on Thursday, according to the database run by Johns Hopkins University.

The number of patients hospitalized for the virus is at its highest level since April 23, according to The COVID Tracking Project.

The death rate, which plummeted in May and June, has been rising since last week. Florida, the new epicenter, posted more than 11,000 new cases and 128 deaths Friday.

The epidemic is meanwhile spreading to new parts of the country -- Idaho, Tennessee, Mississippi.

President Donald Trump's ratings have plummeted since the start of the pandemic: Only 38 percent of Americans approve of how he has handled the health crisis, against 51 percent in March, according to a Washington Post poll published Friday.

Trump aide Kellyanne Conway said Friday the cause for the decline was that the president was no longer briefing the public about the virus on a daily basis, and suggested this could be revived.

"The president's numbers were much higher when he was out there briefing everybody on a day by day basis about the coronavirus," she said, adding: "I think the president should be doing that."

The near-daily task force briefings featuring Trump were halted in late April amid mounting criticism over his exaggerated and inaccurate claims about the public health response and his penchant for pushing bogus treatments.

"We've really got to regroup, call a time-out," Anthony Fauci the United States' top infectious disease specialist told Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg in a video chat Thursday.

"Not necessarily lock down again, but say 'we've got to do this in a more measured way,'" he added.

- 'Do not be a sheep' -

States locked down in patchwork fashion, and several skipped important epidemiological checkpoints before easing their stay home orders, said Fauci.

Subsequently, many have been forced to pause re-opening, closing bars but also sometimes gyms, movie theaters, places of worship and shops.

Mayors have reacted by imposing mandatory mask orders. But in Georgia, in the south, the state's Republican governor Brian Kemp sued the mayor of the capital Atlanta for issuing a face covering directive.

"While we all agree wearing a mask is effective, I am confident Georgians do not need a mandate to do the right thing," Kemp said.

His lawsuit seeks to overturn not just the mask order but Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms' return to a stricter lockdown.

Bottoms, a Democrat who is vying to become former vice president Joe Biden's running mate in November, believes Kemp's decision was a political retaliation.

"I don't think it was happenstance that this lawsuit was filed the day after Donald Trump visited Atlanta, and I pointed out that he did not have on a mask at Atlanta's Hartsfield Jackson International Airport and that was in violation of state law," she told CNN Friday.

Similar conflicts abound elsewhere in the country. In ultra-conservative Texas, Governor Gregg Abbott finally ordered a statewide mask order after seeing cases surge, but he has been condemned through censure resolutions passed by multiple local Republican officials.

They accuse him of violating the party's principles of separation of powers, free enterprise and personal responsibility, according to The Texas Tribune.

The Democrat leaders of Houston, the state's largest city, want to move back into lockdown but the governor refuses.

"Do not be a sheep," a sheriff in the state of Washington said in late June. The US epidemic began in the western state and cases have started to pick up there once again.

Likewise, many sheriffs -- who are often elected officials -- in California, North Carolina and elsewhere have also said they won't enforce mask regulations in their counties.

The United States' federalized system of governance is proving to be a weakness against a virus that knows no borders.