Gov. Tate Reeves speaks to media during a press conference Friday, April 24, 2020 in Jackson.

Gov. Tate Reeves on Wednesday declined to extend a statewide mask-wearing mandate as COVID-19 cases remain relatively flat, saying “we should not use the heavy hand of government more than it is justified.”

He also called for any schools that remain closed to in-person teaching to open, but said mask wearing will still be required in schools, colleges and universities, and at some “close contact” businesses such as salons and barber shops.

“It can be done safely — that’s been proven,” Reeves said. “There is no excuse to force parents across Mississippi to continue to be full-time teachers.”

Reeves’ decision to end the statewide mask mandate comes as similar mask mandates continue in more than 30 states. Mississippi is the first state to rescind a statewide mask mandate. On Wednesday, Alabama’s governor extended its mandate into November.

Reeves issued an executive order on Aug. 4 mandating wearing of masks in public after he had issued mask mandates on a county-by-county basis after COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in those areas spiked.

Reeves said he believes most Mississippians will continue to wear masks in public.

“I believe that masks work,” Reeves said. “I think the facts and data in our state and across the country bear that out. I still plan to wear one and I expect most people in our state will.

“It’s the smart and prudent and wise thing to do,” said Reeves, who has faced some criticism for himself appearing at crowded events without a mask. “But there is a difference between something being wise and something being a government mandate.”

Reeves’ executive order issued Wednesday will last through Nov. 11 and supersedes all previous ones, dating back to March. The new order relaxes other restrictions, increasing attendance at outdoor K-12 extracurricular events such as football games to 50% of seating capacity, raising limits on group gatherings to 20 indoors and 100 outdoors.

For college and university football games, stadium seating will remain restricted to 25% capacity, and attendees will still be required to wear masks while entering or moving in the stadium. Indoor club areas will be allowed a maximum of 75% capacity. A prohibition on tailgating remains in effect.

Reeves has, in turn, been criticized for being too slow or lenient with shutdowns or restrictions during the pandemic, and for being too strict. He said Wednesday he has always tried to balance his decisions, and “as a general rule, guidelines are better than mandates.”

“We need to trust the people of this country to look out for themselves,” Reeves said.

State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs, who participated in Reeves’ Wednesday press conference, did not clearly answer when asked whether he agreed with removing the statewide mask mandate. He said he was encouraged that masks will still be required in schools, but said he understands the arguments of personal liberty. He said he plans to continue to wear a mask.

Since a steep drop in new COVID-19 cases from late August to early September, the daily average of cases has remained steady between 400 and 500 for most of this month. In late July, the seven-day case average peaked at 1,382 per day.

On Wednesday, the state Health Department reported 552 new cases and 12 new deaths, bringing the Mississippi case total to 98,190 and total deaths to 2,969.

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Geoff Pender serves as senior political reporter, working closely with Mississippi Today leadership on editorial strategy and investigations. Pender brings 30 years of political and government reporting experience to Mississippi Today. He was political and investigative editor at the Clarion Ledger, where he also penned a popular political column. He previously served as an investigative reporter and political editor at the Sun Herald, where he was a member of the Pulitzer Prize-winning team for Hurricane Katrina coverage. Originally from Florence, Mississippi, Pender is a journalism graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi and has received numerous awards throughout his career for reporting, columns and freedom of information efforts.