Gov. Tate Reeves on Wednesday expanded orders limiting gatherings statewide after catching criticism for hosting Christmas parties for politicians and supporters at the Governor’s Mansion as COVID-19 cases soar and top health officials advise against such events.

Reeves said his parties will be carefully structured for social distancing and safety and that he respects state medical officials, considers them “confidants,” but doesn’t always agree with them. He said he believes Mississippians want some “normalcy” after 10 months of the pandemic and that holiday gatherings can be held safely.

The state health department and state health officer have recently advised Mississippians not to attend holiday parties beyond closest family, and warned holiday socializing will bring more cases and deaths as Mississippi’s health care system is overtaxed.

But Reeves said parties and public tours at the mansion “allows us to send a message to the people of Mississippi that you can return to life as somewhat normal, but you’ve got to do it in a way that minimizes risk.”

Still, as MSDH reported a record-setting 2,746 new cases on Wednesday, Reeves expanded statewide his order limiting gatherings to no more than 10 people indoors and 50 outdoors when social distancing can’t be practiced. Until Wednesday, 54 counties had been under such executive orders and under orders to wear masks inside public places. He did not expand the mask mandate beyond specific counties with highest cases of COVID-19, although state medical experts have also urged him to do so.

The new orders also added and removed some counties from the list of those under a mask mandate, bringing the total to 61 of 82 counties.

Vaccines available by next week

A day after the first fully vetted vaccine shots were distributed in the United Kingdom, State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs said that 25,000 doses of the new Pfizer vaccine will be available for Mississippi’s frontline healthcare workers next week. The following week, he expects the state will have enough vaccines for all nursing home residents and employees.

But the vaccine will likely not be available for the general public until the spring or summer as the COVID-19 spread regularly sets new peaks both nationally and statewide. Mississippi’s rolling seven-day average for new cases, now at 1,927, has reached a new record in six of the last nine days, and is up 40% in the last week and a half.

Recent numbers, layered with the concurrent cold season and winter holidays, have health officials begging the public to take new levels of precaution.

I think as a society we’ve let our guard down, we’ve become more comfortable with certain things,” Dr. Alan Jones, assistant vice chancellor at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, said at a press conference last week. “It’s not the super-spreader events or some of the things we saw in the (summer peak). It’s smaller gatherings where people feel safe. Those events are not safe.”

Wednesday’s executive order also put forth new restrictions on indoor sporting events; at schools, crowds are limited to the lesser of four spectators per student participant or 250 ticketed spectators. Other indoor arenas will be limited to the lesser of 10% seating capacity or 1,000 attendees.

Reeves also announced that Mississippi Emergency and Management Agency Director Greg Michel, who regularly joins the governor and Dobbs at press conferences, had tested positive for the virus, and Michel did not appear at Wednesday’s briefing.

The 61 counties now under a mask mandate are: Adams, Alcorn, Amite, Attala, Bolivar, Calhoun, Carroll, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Clarke, Clay, Coahoma, Copiah, Covington, Desoto, Forrest, Franklin, Grenada, Harrison, Hinds, Holmes, Itawamba, Jackson, Jefferson, Jefferson Davis, Jones, Kemper, Lafayette, Lamar, Lauderdale, Lawrence, Lee, Leflore, Lincoln, Lowndes, Madison, Marion, Marshall, Monroe, Montgomery, Neshoba, Noxubee, Oktibbeha, Panola, Pearl River, Perry, Pontotoc, Prentiss, Rankin, Scott, Simpson, Stone, Tate, Tippah, Tishomingo, Union, Washington, Webster, Winston, Yalobusha and Yazoo Counties.

Alex Rozier, a native of New York City, is Mississippi Today’s data reporter. He analyzes data and creates visuals that further inform our reporting. He also reports on the environment, transportation and Mississippi culture and is a member of the engagement team. Alex, whose work has appeared in the Boston Globe and Open Secrets, has a bachelor’s in journalism from Boston University.

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.