Elise Partin was waiting to see if her governor would take action.
The mayor of Cayce, South Carolina, a city of roughly 14,000 people, had heard calls for a local mask order from people in her community and she believed that a statewide edict from Gov. Henry McMaster would prove to be easier to follow and understand for state residents during the coronavirus pandemic.
When that didn’t happen, city leaders decided on their own mandate that took effect last week that “masks be worn in indoor places open to the general public,” according to a statement on Cayce’s website.
The hesitation was never about science, Partin said.
“It clearly is showing that wearing a mask does help reduce transmission,” she said. “I don't know why we wouldn't want to encourage that as much as we can.”
McMaster, an ally of President Donald Trump, is among a collective of GOP leaders in the South to avoid pushing a statewide face mask requirement, even as other Republicans struggling to contain the virus have bowed to the reality that wearing masks is a must.
While 28 states had mask orders as of Friday, according to Axios, many GOP state leaders, encouraged by President Trump, have been reluctant to embrace the tactic.
Mandating masks has become the latest public health restriction turned political issue dividing GOP leaders in the South. As some leaders reluctantly embrace the move in hopes of halting the rapid spread of the virus, others continue to run far off in the other direction
That began to change this week when the conservative strongholds of Alabama and Arkansas relented, creating a sharp U-turn for a Republican public health ideology that had been more prone to lash out at public health restrictions than to move to embrace them.
“While I applaud the governor on a statewide mask order, I do think that it's several months too late, because we could have really saved a lot of lives if we had taken this approach earlier,” Alabama House Minority Leader Anthony Daniels, a Democrat, told The Daily Beast.
The leaders of Arkansas and Alabama waited until the coronavirus pandemic got so bad in their states that they had to turn to the very kind of statewide mandate that their party has made a brand of scoffing at in recent months.
“I still believe this is going to be a difficult order to enforce and I always prefer personal responsibility over a government mandate,” Alabama Republican Gov. Kay Ivey said during a press conference Wednesday announcing the mask order. “And yet I also know, with all my heart, that the numbers and the data over the past few weeks are definitely trending in the wrong direction.”
After earlier emphasizing that localities' moves could not be stricter than his own executive directions in Georgia, Republican Gov. Brian Kemp escalated tensions dramatically with another executive order this week that specifically “suspended” local mask requirements for public places. That soon led to a lawsuit from Kemp against Atlanta’s mayor and city council members over their local mask order, according to The Atlanta-Journal Constitution.
Earlier this month, Kemp was proudly touting on Twitter his #WearAMask tour, and was still urging people to wear a mask on social media Friday, even as the portion of his order targeted at local governments continued to lead to backlash.
“This is on par for who he is, and it's unfortunate that more Georgians are going to die because of the decisions that he's making based on politics and not in in the interest of public health,” said Georgia Democratic Party chair Nikema Williams, who also serves as a state senator and tested positive for COVID-19 back in March.
Yet Heath Garrett, a Republican strategist in Georgia, described Kemp’s approach as a rule-of-law argument that follows the statewide leader’s core philosophies.
“I think he recognizes he's taking a short term PR hit, but I think he's confident that our data's different than Florida, Arizona, Alabama, Texas and these other Sun Belt states,” said Garrett, who worked on Kemp’s past secretary of state campaigns before the Republican became governor.
Others weren’t so sure about the approach.
“It’s a mess. It’s 2020, we have two Senate races, might as well be at the epicenter of face-masks lawsuits,” said one Georgia-based Republican strategist.
The strategist added that the difference between the red and blue state governors likely boils down to basic philosophical differences about the role of government—but, in regards to Kemp, there could be something else at play.
“This governor is very, very stubborn,” the strategist said. “When he starts chewing on a bone he will not let any dogs near that bone, this is something he’s really digging in on.”
Other GOP leaders in states struggling to contain the coronavirus, like Florida and Mississippi, have avoided a statewide mask requirement. Earlier this week, the Mississippi State Medical Association publicly called on the state’s GOP Gov. Tate Reeves to make such a move, saying on Twitter that the group felt “without a statewide mask mandate our state’s healthcare system cannot sustain the trajectory of this outbreak.”
In other states trending poorly like Ohio, Gov. Mike DeWine has grown increasingly alarmed about the changing tide of the coronavirus, but has not gone as far as a statewide mask order. Like many of his GOP peers, such a move would likely trigger backlash from a base of Republicans who have already made clear that they feel DeWine has overstepped his authority.
Both Reeves and DeWine, however, have taken the more limited step of specifying that masks need to be worn in certain hard-hit counties.
In what has become a trend during the pandemic, Democratic governors have often proven more apt to implement statewide mask orders, though fears of a second shutdown are clear with the pandemic continuing to kill nationwide with no clear end in sight. As of Friday afternoon, the nation’s death toll stood at more than 138,000 according to Johns Hopkins University.
After months of taking a lax approach with masks during the public health crisis, Vice President Mike Pence has been more clear about urging people to wear a mask and making the point of donning one himself. When Trump wore a mask during a recent appearance, his orbit made a point of cheering him on despite the pivot coming after months of the virus killing Americans and people worldwide.
But there still hasn’t been clear pressure from the White House to urge governors to mandate masks, as apathy about mandated coronavirus restrictions continues to be a theme amongst the GOP base.
The resistance to mask orders from some governors remains puzzling to Andreas Handel, an associate professor in the department of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of Georgia’s College of Public Health.
“I don't really see why anyone would not support this,” Handel said.
-With additional reporting from Jackie Kucinich