On Aug. 4, Gov. Tate Reeves announced a statewide mask mandate — a policy 34 other states including Alabama, Arkansas and Louisiana had already put in place.
At the time, COVID-19 numbers in Mississippi had shown slight improvement after a record peak in late July. To that point, Reeves had resisted pressure to implement the statewide mandate as President Donald Trump and other top Republicans leaders continued to publicly question the effectiveness of mask-wearing.
The governor’s main inspiration for issuing the statewide order, he said at the time, was to contain the virus so public schools could reopen safely in person and on time.
“Up to this point, we’ve kept the focus for masks on the counties with the highest spread,” Reeves said at a press briefing at the time. “Now, with a two-week push, I believe we can have the maximum effect and allow for the education of our kids to occur. I have taken a piecemeal approach, I’ve been criticized about it by an awful lot of people. But I’ve taken a piecemeal approach because I firmly believe that that was the best way to get the most amount of people to participate (in wearing masks).”
Reeves, despite pushback from state health officials, allowed for most schools to reopen. The statewide mask mandate, though, lasted only briefly, as Reeves let the executive order expire on Sept. 30, making him the first governor in America to end a statewide mask order. Since then, he’s relied on issuing county-by-county mask mandates for COVID-19 hotspots.
In schools, and in the state as a whole, the difference in cases during and after the statewide mandate is stark: Between the last week of the mandate and the most recent weekly case count, COVID-19 cases in schools have nearly tripled.
During the statewide mask mandate, which lasted nearly two months, the seven-day new case average shrunk by over half, falling as low as 413 on Sept. 14. Since then, the case average has increased by 200%, and 140% since the statewide mask mandate ended.
While the current surge hasn’t yet reached the peak set in late July, health officials last week warned ahead of Thanksgiving of a pattern of case spikes after holidays. Some have even called on Reeves to re-issue the statewide mask mandate. As of last week, 37 states and the District of Columbia all had such mandates.
But Reeves continues to rely on county-by-county mask orders.
“We do very much believe we should have a statewide mask mandate,” Dr. LouAnn Woodward, vice chancellor of the University of Mississippi Medical Center, said Monday at a press conference. “… I think we have reasonable evidence to believe the county-by-county approach is not working.”
In August, MIT released a study comparing states with and without mask mandates, suggesting that a nationwide mask mandate could have saved 40% of worker deaths.
State Health Officer Thomas Dobbs, who recently tweeted about the contrast in cases in counties with and without mask mandates, said on Friday that the current spike is on pace to surpass the summer’s.
“We’re seeing a rate in rise in hospitalizations we haven’t seen yet at all,” Dobbs said. “We’re seeing increasing case burdens that we haven’t seen yet at all. It looks very likely that this fall surge is going to be far more severe than even our summer surge.”
Dobbs said last week that the state’s test positivity rate had climbed back to 14%, or nearly double what it was toward the end of the statewide mask mandate.
As of Monday, Reeves had placed 22 counties under mask mandates, a policy the governor said is decided by a formula unchanged throughout the pandemic: over a two-week period, a county needs to either have had more than 200 total cases or over 500 cases per 100,000 residents. Yet for the first of the two criteria, a spokesperson for his office clarified, a county would also need to have had over 200 cases per 100,000 residents in that span — a detail Reeves repeatedly excluded at press briefings.
As of Nov. 24, Mississippi as a whole has met both criteria for five straight days.
Leading up to the August mask mandate, Reeves talked at his briefings about the importance of constantly reassessing state policy.
“Throughout this pandemic we’ve tried to operate with humility, understanding that we cannot be too proud to change course,” he said on Aug. 4. “We know that with this virus, times change every single day. The data changes, the situation changes, and we’ve got to be prepared to change as well.”
On July 24, when the new case average was roughly what it is today, Reeves told his constituents: “If at any point I believe that the best approach is to go to a statewide mask mandate, I’ll do it in a heartbeat if I believe that’s the best thing for Mississippi and Mississippians.”