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As virus deaths rise, pressure mounts on governors to pass mask requirements

Governors across the country are facing increasing pressure to pass statewide mask requirements and mount a more coherent pandemic response as coronavirus cases soar to record levels, daily deaths rise and hospitals in the South and West face a crush of patients. 

A growing chorus of local officials and health experts have warned that infections could continue to spiral out of control unless governors issue public health measures that apply to everyone.

"We've been begging for a uniform response from the state," said Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba, a Democrat, of Jackson, Miss., where hospital intensive care unit beds were nearing full capacity.

"It's of great concern to us here in Jackson, not only because we are the most populous city by a factor of three, but because we're the capital city, and the capital of health care," Lumumba told ABC's Good Morning America on Saturday. "Other cities, as their numbers increase, it is likely our hospitals that will receive the increased burden."

Here are some significant developments:

-- Disney World in Orlando, Fla., reopened Saturday after shuttering for nearly four months, even as Florida continued to report record coronavirus cases.

-- The United States reported its largest single-day caseload increase - more than 67,000 new infections - on Friday.

More than 131,000 people have died of coronavirus in the United States since the pandemic began, and at more than 3.1 million confirmed cases have been reported.

Republican governors who have opposed or even blocked orders mandating mask-wearing are watching from the sidelines as local officials impose strict measures to contain the spread.

The White House is pressing the Food and Drug Administration to reverse course and grant a second emergency authorization for the antimalarial drug hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID-19. Scientists have widely criticized the new study that the White House is relying on as "flawed."

The calls for more decisive leadership reflect a growing urgency at the local level as more signs emerged this past week that the United States was losing its grip on the pandemic.

The daily coronavirus death toll in the United States increased after months of decline, with more than 4,200 reported nationally in the past seven days and experts warning that the trend would likely worsen. Texas, Arizona and South Carolina have all seen their death toll rise by more than 100 percent in the past four weeks. Four more states - Mississippi, Tennessee, California and Louisiana - have seen at least a 20 percent jump in that time span.

The country reported a total of 67,211 new confirmed cases Friday, eclipsing the previous single-day record set earlier in the week by nearly 6,000. Cases continued to rise in hard-hit states in the Sun Belt, with Midwestern states also tallying significant increases.

Even amid the rising infections and deaths, many state leaders have balked at issuing more stringent requirements, saying they would be difficult to enforce.

The country's approach to the pandemic has been "a tale of two cities," said former Food and Drug Administration commissioner Scott Gottlieb. Northeastern states "sought to crush the virus," he said, while others such as Florida, Texas and Arizona tried to manage the spread to vulnerable people.

"Without a more uniform U.S. approach," Gottlieb tweeted Thursday, "it'll be hard for either strategy to work."

The tension was on display in Mississippi, where Gov. Tate Reeves, a Republican, on Friday imposed mask requirements on 13 of Mississippi's 82 counties, including some of the state's largest cities. Lumumba, the Jackson mayor, argued the order was toothless unless it covered all state residents.

"The communities here in Mississippi are far too interconnected," he said. "You can literally go across the street in some areas of our city and find anther city adjacent to us. So it becomes more of a notion than a reality if you have restrictions imposed in your city but people can go across the street and congregate, and can go across the street and find communities where people are not wearing masks."

A bipartisan group of 10 mayors from Alabama's largest cities also argued in favor of a statewide mask order, telling Gov. Kay Ivey, a Republican, that it was necessary as cases have climbed steadily in the state. Ivey has previously dismissed the idea.

Other governors have waffled on whether to issue statewide mask requirements, which health experts say are key for preventing transmission.

Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, is facing calls for a mask mandate after the seven-day average for new infections in the state on Friday reached its highest level since a peak in early April. Edwards has avoided issuing such an order so far, leaving the decision to local governments.

"The virus doesn't respect parish lines any more than it recognizes a potential target's political leanings," the New Orleans Advocate wrote in a Saturday editorial. "Only consistent policies will do the trick."

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican, tried to mandate masks in the spring but backed down after a torrent of criticism. He has since instituted a county-by-county approach, only requiring masks in places where health officials say where the virus spread is "very high." In a rare front-page editorial Saturday, the Columbus Dispatch said the move was "akin to closing the barn door after the horses have escaped."

In states with statewide mask orders, governors are having trouble convincing people to comply. Dozens of counties in Texas have either refused to enforce or opted out of Gov. Greg Abbott's order to wear masks in public.

The Republican governor, whose aggressive reopening plan preceded the virus surge in Texas, said new cases were expected to keep climbing after hitting new highs this past week, and warned that the state would have to go back into lockdown if people continued to defy the mask mandate.

"I made clear that I made this tough decision for one reason: It was our last best effort to slow the spread of covid-19," Abbott told KLBK. "If we do not slow the spread of covid-19 ... the next step would have to be a lockdown."

Other public health efforts by local officials have been met with pushback from governors. In Georgia, which reported a record 4,484 new cases Friday, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, a Republican, announced she was rolling back the city's reopening plan to its first phase while officials tried to curb the spike in cases. The move drew an immediate rebuke from Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican, who called it "unenforceable" but stopped short of invalidating it.

Nationwide, coronavirus-related hospitalizations on Saturday reached their highest level since early May, with 50,100 patients nationwide, according to the Covid Tracking Project.

In Texas, where roughly 10,000 coronavirus patients were hospitalized and more than 3,000 people have died of the virus, some counties were preparing for a wave of new deaths by requesting refrigerator trucks to store bodies that can't fit in overflowing morgues.

"That's why we're asking people to wear face masks," Nueces County Judge Barbara Canales told KRIS in Corpus Christi. "I am now having to order additional body bags and morgue trailers. People have to understand how real it is."

 

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