Gov. Tate Reeves addresses COVID-19 for the state during his briefing Monday, October 19, 2020 at the Woolfolk Building.

Gov. Tate Reeves on Monday added seven counties to his mask-wearing order, bringing the total to 16 counties where he has reinstated the mandate as COVID-19 cases spike.

But Reeves said mask wearing will not be mandated for voting in the Nov. 3 election, even in those counties, as he believes mandating them would be an unconstitutional restriction. He noted protests earlier this year during the pandemic drew crowds larger than crowd size limits then in place, but were allowed as protected free speech.

“I do anticipate a vast majority of Mississippians will be wearing a mask (when they vote),” Reeves said. “… I think what you are going to find is that we will have a safe, secure election in Mississippi.”

The counties Reeves added to the mask mandate Monday are: Harrison, Madison, Marshall, Jones, Carroll, Leake and Benton.

Last week, Reeves ordered mask wearing for the counties of: 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 has said this will not prevent high school football games, which are covered under separate orders.

Reeves’ latest executive orders also again require 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. He also relaxed restrictions on social gatherings. Since then cases have risen.

During the span of the statewide mask mandate, the seven-day average for 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 has 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.

On Monday, the state Health Department reported 447 new COVID-19 cases, eight new deaths and 683 hospitalizations. The state has had a total of 3,263 COVID-19 deaths reported.

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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.