Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt stopped short once again of imposing a statewide mask mandate Monday, becoming the latest governor to put in place new restrictions—but not the one that experts say is crucial to slowing the spread of COVID-19.
Meanwhile, Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts dug in his heels and said that he not only won’t issue a statewide mask order, he won’t let any more local governments do so, either.
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, who is a Republican like Stitt and Ricketts, did issue a mask order on Monday evening, but it was narrow in scope and included exceptions, even as she admitted the pandemic in her state is “worse than it has ever been.”
Stitt is one of the governors who has resisted requiring masks statewide for months, even after the Trump White House’s Coronavirus Task Force recommended the move earlier this year.
With the state’s coronavirus situation growing worse Monday, the governor made a small concession, ordering that all state employees would need “to wear a mask in common areas or when they’re around people at work.”
That decision would cover 33,000 employees throughout Oklahoma, while masks will also be mandated for people visiting state buildings. In other moves, Stitt also said the state would soon require restaurants and bars to close by 11 p.m and that tables at restaurants be 6 feet apart or have “sanitized dividers.”
“We’ve been fully reopen for six months now,” Stitt told reporters during a press conference. “But recently we’ve seen our numbers starting to climb... based on the data in our state, specifically the rise in hospitalizations, now is the time to do more.”
Ricketts and Idaho Gov. Brad Little also have held press conferences in recent weeks to announce new measures in response to ever-higher coronavirus cases, deaths, and hospitalizations. But they have all declined to implement a blanket statewide mask mandate—an issue that has become pointlessly politicized.
“Masks are just one tool, they're not the only tool,” Ricketts said at his Monday press conference, according to KETV.
This weekend, the nation saw its 11th million COVID-19 case, with 1 million of those diagnoses coming in just six days. All but a handful of states have reported new records in coronavirus metrics in the past week—and the numbers are only expected to get worse as many Americans ignore pleas from public health officials and gather for the winter holidays.
The circumstances have gotten so dire that North Dakota’s Doug Burgum threw in the towel last week and announced the statewide mask order that medical professionals in his state had been begging him to put in place. He followed Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, who days earlier had ordered residents to wear masks in public when near others.
“Masks do not negatively affect our economy, and wearing them is the easiest way to slow the spread of the virus. Experts tell us that masks do not cause a shortage of oxygen to your brain or cause disease,” Herbert said at the time. “We cannot afford to debate this issue any longer. Individual freedom is certainly important and it is our rule of law that protects that freedom.”
But others are maintaining their resistance to statewide mask orders—even as studies show that masks work. University of Kansas researchers said in a study released last month that in Kansas they “found a 50% reduction in the spread of COVID-19 in counties that had a mask mandate compared to those without.”
While Stitt is declining to go that far, the White House Coronavirus Task Force issued a warning about the state’s direction amid the recent surge. Federal officials warned in a Nov. 8 state report that “the unyielding COVID spread across Oklahoma continues with new hospital admissions, inpatients, and patients in the ICU at record levels, indicating deeper spread across the state.”
“The most recent trends, showing steep inclines across all indicators, need immediate action including mask requirements to decrease severity in morbidity and mortality among Oklahomans,” the task force said in the report.
In Iowa, Reynolds’ office announced that indoor gatherings that are “social, community, business or leisure” based will be capped at 15 people, while similar events outdoors can be no larger than 30 people. Bars and restaurants also have to close by 10 p.m., Reynolds said, and people at those establishments interacting with customers also have to don masks, while customers will be required to do the same “when they are not seated at the table.”
“Starting tomorrow, when you’re in an indoor public space and unable to social distance for 15 minutes or longer, masks are required to be worn,” Reynolds said. “The same requirements apply to visitors and employees inside state buildings, and I strongly encourage other businesses to follow this lead.”
A reporter for The Des Moines Register tweeted after the speech that “Reynolds' spokesperson clarifies that the mask mandate announced tonight does not apply to schools.”
Reynolds had long opposed a statewide mask order, saying in September, “I trust Iowans to do the right thing and I think they are doing the right thing.”
Ahead of Reynolds’ Monday speech, the White House Coronavirus Task Force report for Nov. 8 showed Iowa had the fourth-highest test positivity rate and the fourth-highest mark for “new cases per 100,000 population.”
And like the report for Oklahoma, officials warned that “the most recent trends, showing steep inclines across all indicators, need immediate action including mask requirements to decrease severity in morbidity and mortality among Iowans.”
“This isn’t about mandates, this isn’t about government,” Reynolds said Monday. “There isn't enough law enforcement in the country to make sure that every Iowan is wearing a mask when they should. There aren’t enough sheriffs in Iowa’s 99 counties to shutdown every non-compliant bar. If Iowans don’t buy into this, we lose.”
Speaking to reporters after delivering remarks earlier Monday, President-Elect Joe Biden praised GOP governors “who stepped up and issued mandates for wearing masks,” and their Democratic counterparts who have embraced the public health measure through statewide orders.
But as other statewide Republican leaders haven’t been willing to go that far, Biden lamented, “Does anybody understand why a governor would turn this into a political statement?”
“It's about patriotism. It’s about being patriotic. It’s about saving lives for real, and [this] is not hyperbole,” Biden said. “It's about being patriotic. And I think you’re seeing more and more as this god awful virus continues to spread, almost unabated that we, that governors are stepping up.”
—With additional reporting from Jackie Kucinich