July 16, 2020 / 4:01 PM / in a month

U.S. elected leaders clash over masks as new COVID-19 cases set another record

ATLANTA (Reuters) - Colorado and Arkansas on Thursday joined a growing list of U.S. states requiring face coverings in public to combat a surge in coronavirus infections, after Georgia’s governor moved the other way and barred such measures from being imposed at the local level.

The conflicting directives over masks came as the United States reported at least 77,000 new COVID-19 cases nationwide on Thursday, a record daily jump in known infections for the seventh time this month, according to a Reuters tally.

Texas alone accounted for one in five of the newly reported cases. The rising numbers bore grim consequences for public health authorities on the ground.

Facing a looming shortage of morgue capacity in hard-hit areas around Phoenix, Arizona, and San Antonio, Texas, officials said they were bringing in coolers and refrigerated trailers to store bodies of COVID-19 victims.

With announcements from Colorado Governor Jared Polis, a Democrat, and Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson, a Republican, a majority of states - 26 out of 50 - have now sided with health experts urging that face masks be mandatory, rather than a matter of personal choice.

Bucking the trend, Georgia’s Republican governor, Brian Kemp, issued an executive order late on Wednesday suspending local face-mask regulations while saying residents were “strongly encouraged” to wear them.

Kemp, one of the first governors to ease statewide stay-at-home orders and business closures following the early stages of the U.S. outbreak, suggested that mandating masks would be too restrictive.

After Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms of Atlanta, Georgia’s capital and largest city, said she planned to defy Kemp’s order and enforce a mandatory mask ordinance she issued on July 8, Kemp filed suit on Thursday to override her.

“This lawsuit is on behalf of the Atlanta business owners and their hardworking employees who are struggling to survive during these difficult times,” Kemp said in a statement. “I refuse to sit back and watch as disastrous policies threaten the lives and livelihoods of our citizens.”

Hours earlier, Bottoms, who tested positive for the virus herself last week and is under quarantine, declared the city’s mask requirements “enforceable as they stand.”

Savannah Mayor Van Johnson, who issued a mask mandate in his Georgia city on July 1, said on Twitter that Kemp’s order demonstrated he “does not give a damn about us.”

The clash drew mixed reactions from residents.

‘CHOOSE WISELY’

“We need to wear masks to stop the spread,” said Ethan Padgett, 37, a furloughed art museum worker, as he spoke through his face covering outside an East Atlanta Village coffee shop. “If the governor takes it more seriously, people will.”

But Pat Walker, 54, who was also wearing a mask, said the governor was just encouraging people to do the right thing.

“People should have a choice but choose wisely,” she said.

Mounting evidence of a worsening pandemic sparked a reckoning that has cut across partisan lines on a heavily politicized issue.

“The number of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths are numbers that speak for themselves and indicate that we need to do more,” Hutchinson told a news briefing.

FILE PHOTO: Emergency Medical Technicians (EMT) arrive with a patient to Jackson Health Center, where the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) patients are treated, in Miami, Florida, U.S. July 14, 2020. REUTERS/Maria Alejandra Cardona

Starting Monday in Arkansas, individuals must wear face-coverings in all indoor or outdoor settings where they are exposed to non-household members and where social distancing of 6 feet or more is not possible.

Colorado’s order requires people to cover their noses and mouths in such indoor settings as office spaces and stores, as well as while congregating outside to wait for taxis, buses, ride-shares or other transport services.

Ohio Governor Mike DeWine, also a Republican, widened his directive to include more circumstances where face masks are obligatory.

SIGNS OF RESURGENT VIRUS

As of late Thursday, the novel coronavirus was known to have infected nearly 3.6 million Americans and killed more than 138,000.

The resurgence is especially worrisome across the American South and West where officials started loosening economic and social restrictions aimed at slowing the spread of the virus.

On Thursday, Florida, Texas and South Carolina each reported record numbers of COVID-19 deaths for a single day. At least four others hit an all-time high in new infections, led by Texas with more than 15,000 for the day.

Thirty states have registered record daily increases in confirmed cases this month, and 14 states have reported a greater number of deaths for a single day in July than ever before.

Moreover, the proportion of positive test results among individuals being screened for infection - a metric called the positivity rate - has been trending ominously higher across much of the county.

Infectious disease experts consider a rate higher than 5% concerning, and two dozen states have averaged rates above 5% and climbing over the past two weeks, according to data collected by Johns Hopkins University.

Slideshow (4 Images)

Many states have had to roll back reopenings aimed at pumping up local economies crushed by the coronavirus shutdowns.

New York City, once the country’s epicenter, has been slower than others to reopen and continues to see results, Mayor Bill de Blasio told a briefing on Thursday.

Only 2% of more than 40,000 city residents screened for infection tested positive on Wednesday, he said, against a national average of 8.8%, rising to more than 20% in some states.

Reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta and Gabriella Borter in New York; Additional reporting by Maria Caspani, Doina Chiacu, Lisa Shumaker, Peter Szekely and Keith Coffman; Writing by Sonya Hepinstall; Editing by Howard Goller, Rosalba O'Brien and Cynthia Osterman

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