US leaders wrangle over mask use as new daily Covid-19 cases soar

Protestors demonstrate outside the home of Tucson's Mayor Regina Romero in opposition to the new mask mandate to prevent the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Tucson, Arizona, U.S., June 20, 2020.
Protestors demonstrate outside the home of Tucson's Mayor Regina Romero in opposition to the new mask mandate to prevent the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Tucson, Arizona, U.S., June 20, 2020. © Cheney Orr, Reuters

Colorado and Arkansas on Thursday joined a growing list of U.S. states requiring face coverings in public places to combat a surge in coronavirus infections, after Georgia's governor moved the other way and barred such measures from being imposed at the local level.


The conflicting directives over masks came as the United States reported at least 75,000 new COVID-19 cases nationwide on Thursday, a record daily jump in known infections for the seventh time this month, according to a Reuters tally.

With announcements from Colorado Governor Jared Polis, a Democrat, and Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson, a Republican, a majority of states - 26 out of 50 - have now sided with public health experts urging that face masks be mandatory, rather than a matter of personal choice.

Both men had previously resisted obligatory mask policies but said the resurgent health crisis had left them no choice.

Bucking the trend, Georgia's Republican governor, Brian Kemp, issued an executive order late on Wednesday suspending local face-mask regulations while saying residents were "strongly encouraged" to wear them.

Kemp, one of the first governors to ease statewide stay-at-home orders and business closures following the early stages of the U.S. outbreak, suggested that mandating masks would be too restrictive.

After Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms of Atlanta, Georgia's capital and largest city, said she planned to defy Kemp's order and enforce a mandatory mask ordinance she issued on July 8, Kemp filed suit on Thursday to override her.

"This lawsuit is on behalf of the Atlanta business owners and their hardworking employees who are struggling to survive during these difficult times," Kemp said in a statement. "I refuse to sit back and watch as disastrous policies threaten the lives and livelihoods of our citizens."

Hours earlier, Bottoms, who tested positive for the virus herself last week and is under quarantine, declared the city's mask requirements "enforceable as they stand."

Savannah Mayor Van Johnson, who issued a mask mandate in his Georgia city on July 1, said on Twitter that Kemp's order demonstrated he "does not give a damn about us."

The clash drew mixed reactions from local residents.

'Choose wisely'

"We need to wear masks to stop the spread," said Ethan Padgett, 37, a furloughed art museum worker, as he spoke through his face covering outside an East Atlanta Village coffee shop. "If the governor takes it more seriously, people will."

But Pat Walker, 54, who was also wearing a mask, said the governor was just encouraging people to do the right thing.

"People should have a choice but choose wisely," she said.

Mounting evidence of a worsening pandemic sparked a reckoning that has cut across partisan lines on a heavily politicized issue.

"The number of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths are numbers that speak for themselves and indicate that we need to do more," Hutchinson told a news briefing.

Starting Monday in Arkansas, individuals must wear face-coverings in all indoor or outdoor settings where they are exposed to non-household members and where social distancing of 6 feet or more is not possible.

Colorado's order requires people to cover their noses and mouths in such indoor settings as office spaces and stores, as well as while congregating outside to wait for taxis, buses, ride-shares or other transportation services.

Ohio Governor Mike DeWine, also a Republican, widened his earlier directive to include more circumstances where face masks are obligatory.

Signs of resurgent virus

New U.S. cases have been averaging around 60,000 a day, with the total number of known infections climbing to nearly 3.6 million - by far the highest national tally in the world. More than 138,000 Americans have died.

The resurgence is especially worrisome across the American South and West where local officials started loosening economic and social restrictions aimed at slowing the spread of the virus.

On Thursday, Florida, Texas and South Carolina each reported record numbers of COVID-19 deaths for a single day. At least three other states hit an all-time high in new infections - Nevada with 1,447, Mississippi with 1,230 and Oregon with 429.

Thirty states have registered record daily increases in confirmed cases this month, many of them more than once, and 14 states have reported a greater number of deaths for a single day in July than ever before.

Moreover, the proportion of positive test results among individuals being screened for infection - a metric called the positivity rate - has been trending ominously higher across much of the county.

Infectious disease experts consider a rate above 5% concerning, and two dozen states have average rates above 5% and climbing over the past two weeks, according to data collected by Johns Hopkins University.

Many states have had to roll back reopenings aimed at pumping up local economies crushed by the coronavirus shutdowns.

New York City, once the country's epicenter, has been slower than others to reopen and continues to see results, Mayor Bill de Blasio told a briefing on Thursday.

Only 2% of more than 40,000 city residents screened for infection tested positive on Wednesday, he said, against a national average of 8.8%, rising to over 20% in some states.


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