One Republican Governor Reversed Course on a Mask Mandate. Others Are Still Resisting.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert gives a thumbs up as he walks through the Capitol rotunda to a Covid-19 briefing Monday, Nov. 9, 2020, a day after issuing a statewide mask mandate.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert gives a thumbs up as he walks through the Capitol rotunda to a Covid-19 briefing Monday, Nov. 9, 2020, a day after issuing a statewide mask mandate. Associated Press

 

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Utah Gov. Gary Herbert declared an indefinite statewide mask mandate on Sunday as coronavirus cases continue to spike around the country, but other governors—including those in states hit hardest by the virus—haven't budged.

Late Sunday night, after Utah capped its highest-ever weekly total of new coronavirus cases, Gov. Gary Herbert reversed course on face masks.

The Republican governor has long encouraged residents to wear face coverings in public—even providing them for free—but was one of roughly a dozen state leaders who resisted enacting a statewide mandate, saying he preferred to leave that decision to local officials. The state earlier required mask use in counties with high rates of the virus, but public health officials and some business leaders have argued a mandate across the entire state would be more effective. 

With cases dramatically rising and hospitals strained, Herbert changed his mind.

“Because scientists and medical experts overwhelmingly recommend masks as an effective way to limit the spread of Covid-19, I am placing the entire state of Utah under a mask mandate until further notice,” he said in a video posted to Twitter. “Businesses must require employees to wear masks, and to promote mask-wearing to their patrons, and to visibly post signage to that effect.”

The mask mandate is part of a larger declaration of emergency that includes other restrictions, including the temporary cancellation of “all extra-curricular activities” and a prohibition of "casual gatherings" with people outside of one's immediate household. The proclamation came at the conclusion of a week in which Utah reported an average of 2,302 new coronavirus cases per day, an increase of 51% from its average two weeks earlier, according to the New York Times

Herbert said the restrictions were necessary to slow the spread of the virus, primarily to protect hospital workers—especially those who work in intensive care units.

“Our hospitals in Utah are among the best in the world, but they cannot give the best care when hospitals are at capacity and medical professionals are exhausted and spread too thin,” he said. “And that is what is happening now. In our war against Covid-19, we need our doctors and our nurses, and now they need us.”

The authority to issue a mask mandate is likely to remain at the state level even under President-elect Joe Biden, who has repeatedly stressed the need to wear masks and is rarely seen in public without one. An official with Biden's campaign told NBC News that the incoming president would personally call on governors around the country to enact mask mandates in their states; if they decline, "he'll go to the mayors in the state and ask them to lead."

Utah is among dozens of states experiencing a “fall surge” of coronavirus cases. Cases are up 59% nationwide from two weeks ago, with states like North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa, Wisconsin and Nebraska showing severe spikes in reported cases. With the exception of Wisconsin, none of those states have uniform mask mandates, and their governors—all Republicans—have so far resisted calls to issue them.

North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, for example, has for months declined to require masks despite pleas from doctors, even though cases have risen steadily there since July. He has pleaded emotionally with residents to wear masks, even while maintaining that it is up to individuals to embrace that responsibility. 

“I think it’s important to the future of our state that we do understand that there is something that is more powerful than an executive order, infinitely more powerful than a mandate. And these are the beliefs that individuals hold in their hearts: compassion, empathy, understanding and, dare I say, actually love,” he said in October

Several cities in the state, including Fargo, have enacted local mandates.

In Idaho, a state panel of medical experts last week asked Gov. Brad Little to consider a statewide mask mandate after record numbers of positive cases and deaths from the coronavirus. In a letter sent Tuesday, members of the State of Idaho Disaster Medical Advisory Committee said the state’s medical system—short on hospital and ICU beds to begin with—is becoming overwhelmed by the surge and would benefit greatly from a less “haphazard” approach to compliance with “masking recommendations.”

“The data for masking is increasingly compelling,” they wrote. “However, it is also clear that haphazard compliance undermines mask’s effectiveness, and we have not achieved a level of compliance statewide that allows for a decrease in cases...We realize instituting a masking mandate will incur the wrath of some portions of the population, but evidence suggests over 75% of the population would be supportive and the small radical fringe who would oppose such a mandate have no right to endanger the rest of the population.”

In states with lower—but still rising—case counts, leaders have also stressed increased precautions. New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy said Monday that “a second wave is here” and urged residents to continue being diligent about protecting themselves and their neighbors.

“We must redouble our efforts and recommit to the practices that have gotten us this far—social distancing, washing our hands, and wearing our masks,” Murphy, a Democrat, said on Twitter.

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, was more blunt. In a press conference last week—and later in an email to residents, and then once more in a tweet—Hogan warned that the state’s coronavirus numbers were trending in the wrong direction. He said residents should work from home if possible, avoid large gatherings, wash their hands and continue to comply with an existing statewide mask mandate that requires everyone over the age of 5 to wear a face covering in public. Masks, he added, are the easiest way to prevent the spread of the virus.

“It’s simple. It’s not that hard,” he said. “Just wear the damn masks.”

Kate Elizabeth Queram is a staff correspondent for Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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