Gov. Tate Reeves speaks to media about his shelter-in-place order for Lauderdale County during a press conference at the State of Mississippi Woolfolk Building in Jackson, Miss., Tuesday, March 31, 2020.

With COVID-19 cases rising again in Mississippi, Gov. Tate Reeves on Monday reinstated a mask mandate and stricter limits on gatherings for nine counties.

The counties under the new order are: Chickasaw, Claiborne, DeSoto, Forrest, Itawamba, Jackson, Lamar, Lee and Neshoba. Other counties will be added if they reach a threshold of more than 200 recent cases, or 500 cases per 100,000 residents over a two-week period, depending on the population size of the county.

Social gatherings in these counties will be limited to 10 people indoors and 50 outdoors, although Reeves said this will not prevent high school football games, covered in separate orders.

Reeves’ new executive order also again requires hospitals statewide to reserve 10% capacity for COVID-19 patients. If 10% capacity is not available, a hospital will have to delay elective procedures. Reeves said this worked during the summer peak to relieve pressure on hospitals.

Reeves on Sept. 30th lifted a statewide mask mandate — making Mississippi the first state to rescind such a mandate — that he had issued on Aug. 4, and he relaxed restrictions on social gatherings. Since then cases have risen.

Reeves said Mississippi’s rolling average of cases — which peaked at about 1,250 this summer — had dropped to about 500 but has now “ticked back up” to more than 600 cases. On Monday, Mississippi’s seven-day average was 766 cases, and last week saw huge one-day spikes, including more than 1,300 cases reported Thursday.

“Here in Mississippi we have seen this movie before,” Reeves said. “We know what happens if it’s allowed to get out of control. Today I will be signing an executive order, consistent with the strategy that allowed us to turn things around the last time we saw an increase in transmission.”

During the span of the statewide mask mandate, Mississippi cases plummeted, dropping by 54%.

Reeves had been hesitant to issue a statewide mask order in the summer, instead taking a county-by-county approach until state hospitals were becoming overloaded.

But Reeves said he still prefers limited COVID-19 orders to “the heavy hand of government,” and said a mask mandate “is not a silver bullet.” He has said he believes people pay more attention to limited, regional mask orders based on case spikes.

“Many of you may ask, why don’t you throw a statewide mask mandate on, and we’ll be fine,” Reeves said. “Look at the data in Arkansas and look at the data in Alabama, where they never took down their statewide mandates, and their curves look a lot worse than ours.

“… Just writing something down on a sheet of paper doesn’t slow the spread of the virus. Let’s work together, put politics aside, wear masks, stay in small groups and stay socially distant.”

Monday was the first COVID-19 livestreamed public briefing Reeves has held since he rescinded the mask mandate Sept. 30. He said, “I tried to give everyone a break from the Tate Reeves show.” He also reaffirmed that he has tested negative for the coronavirus himself since potentially being exposed to a White House outbreak during a visit there in late September.

Reeves said he believes Mississippi elections will be safe, despite Mississippi being the only state not to allow some form of early voting for all voters.

“Mississippi over the last seven or eight months has had multiple elections run in a safe, responsible way,” Reeves said. “I have every confidence going into the general election that that is going to be the case. The vast majority of voters are going to be wearing masks, and I would recommend them doing so … We just had four (legislative special elections) throughout Mississippi, and I have not been made aware of one case of transmission from them.”

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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.