As COVID-19 cases rose dramatically the past few weeks, Gov. Tate Reeves increasingly fell from public view, skipping chances to talk directly to Mississippians about his response to the worsening crisis.
Reeves, Mississippi’s top executive and the only leader who can issue statewide protocols that can stem the spread of the virus, has limited press conferences as he’s faced growing criticism from all corners of Mississippi.
In the early days of the pandemic and during the state’s first COVID-19 spike, the governor held press conferences almost daily. His staff organized those events — usually broadcast live by television stations across the state — to announce details of executive orders like mask mandates and limits on gatherings. They also gave Mississippians the chance to hear directly from Reeves while he answered questions about his decisions.
But in December, Mississippi’s worst month for the pandemic in every measure, the governor has made himself available to the public just twice. This week, he announced a substantial executive order that mandates mask-wearing in 78 of 82 counties. Instead of announcing it in front of cameras as he has all year, he announced it in short posts on Facebook and Twitter.
“Governor Tate Reeves has been more accessible to press than anyone in the media could have dreamed,” Parker Briden, Reeves’ deputy chief of staff, said in a text message. “Mississippi Today, in particular, has done nothing but insult and attack him at many of these press conferences, and most of the information he would present has been the same for months. Stay home if you can. Wash your hands. Be cautious. The notion that he has not been available for press is ridiculous, and it’s just more evidence that your outlet wants to do nothing but attack Tate Reeves. It’s your only interest.”
The numbers tell a different story.
When officials confirmed the virus reached Mississippi in late March, Reeves held press conferences nearly every weekday. The governor hosted 21 press conferences in the month of April. In May, he held 19.
In June, July and August, Reeves began scheduling press conferences every other day or twice a week. The governor hosted seven pressers in June, 13 in July and nine in August.
But since the current COVID-19 spike began, Reeves changed course and decreased his public appearances.
In September, Reeves held just four COVID-19 press conferences. In both October and November, he held just two. And so far in December, just two.
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While press conferences have been placed on the back burner, Reeves’ office has remained accessible to reporters this year during the many crises the state has faced. Reeves has also taken some COVID-19 questions from reporters at other events, like on Dec. 6 following a legislative budget hearing.
In addition to the press conferences providing the public a chance to hear directly from the governor, they also gave a critical platform to health experts like State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs and Emergency Management Agency Director Greg Michel to offer important health and testing advice directly to Mississippians.
After Reeves called Dobbs his “closest advisor” and regularly offered time at the press conferences to the state’s chief health official, Dobbs has been hosting his own live pressers — usually once or twice a week — in lieu of the governor’s. Michel remains hospitalized himself with COVID-19.
Reeves has faced broad criticism from all quarters regarding his COVID-19 responses. With piecemeal orders on mask wearing and other measures, he’s been criticized both by those wanting stringent public health regulations and those who believe government should be hands-off.
He’s decried the “heavy hand of government,” defending criticism that he should have done more, sooner, but managed to issue enough pandemic edicts to also rile up the more libertarian wing of his base.
Along the way, he’s also managed to insult state medical leaders, who he publicly called “so-called experts” recently. At a November press conference about medical experts speaking out publicly about his actions, Reeves labeled mask mandates as the latest pandemic “buzzword.” Still, as COVID-19 numbers have risen in recent weeks, the most consistent action he’s taken is issuing mask mandates on a county-by-county basis.
While issuing executive orders for Mississippians to wear masks and limit gatherings, he’s shown up in crowds not wearing a mask and hosted Christmas parties and fundraisers.
The last COVID-19 press conference he hosted was on Dec. 9. He faced more than 90 minutes of questions, mostly about his hosting the Christmas parties and attending fundraisers. He also faced questions about why he hadn’t re-issued a statewide mask mandate even as numbers spiked.
Reeves’ last appearance was on Dec. 20 in a live video on his Facebook page. That day, he prayed and read from the Bible for about 20 minutes on what he declared as the “Mississippi Day of Prayer, Humility, and Fasting.”
Meanwhile, Dobbs and other state health experts have warned that bed space in most hospitals across the state is already at its limit. The state reported its third-highest daily total number of new cases on Wednesday, and its highest number of deaths on a single day on Tuesday.
Dobbs, in his own press conference on Tuesday, issued a grim warning as holidays approach.
“It’s bad, and it’s gonna get worse,” he said.