GOP governors ignore Biden’s latest plea on mask mandates

Health

President Joe Biden speaks during an event on COVID-19 vaccinations and response, in the South Court Auditorium on the White House campus, Monday, March 29, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

President Joe Biden’s pleas for states to stick with mask mandates to slow the spread of the coronavirus were being largely ignored Tuesday as several Republican governors stayed on track to drop the requirement in their states.

Biden and the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said a day earlier that this is no time to relax safety measures.

In a call with governors on Tuesday, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky buttressed that message by citing “concerning” national trends: The seven-day average of 61,000 new COVID-19 cases per day is up 13%, and the seven-day average of deaths is up 6%.

But Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchison announced Tuesday he is dropping the state’s mask mandate immediately, a day earlier than previously announced.

“We made our decision in Arkansas based upon the criteria we set,” said the Republican, who last month set targets for test positivity and hospitalizations in order for the state’s requirement to expire. “This is a goal we had. We achieved that, so we stuck with the principle that was outlined.”

The number of new reported cases in Arkansas was 79 on Monday, according to the CDC, part of a downward trend.

On the other end of the spectrum, Michigan has seen a steep rise in cases. That prompted Democratic Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to ask whether the White House has considered surging additional vaccines to states with rapidly increasing infection rates.

Jeffrey Zeints, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, replied that officials are “thinking through how to address hot spots.” He promised to do everything to support Michigan in its “difficult situation.”

Staying the course is a “tough message” to communicate, White House press secretary Jen Psaki acknowledged.

“It’s important for people to hear that we’re still in a war with this virus, and people still need to be vigilant in order to return to normal,” Psaki told reporters Tuesday.

As more vaccines are deployed — with the nation on track to deliver 200 million doses overall by Wednesday — whether to enforce the wearing of masks has become the latest partisan focal point in the battle against the virus.

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey intends for her state’s mask mandate to end on April 9 as planned, though she urged people to wear masks as a matter of personal responsibility.

“We have made progress, and we are moving towards personal responsibility and common sense, not endless government mandates,” said Gina Maiola, Ivey’s spokeswoman.

The Republican-controlled Arizona Senate voted Monday to rescind its mandatory mask policy, and the House speaker made the same move on his own authority.

That action comes on the heels of Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey’s move last week to lift remaining restrictions to curb the virus. The Republican’s executive order allows businesses to enforce mask mandates and distancing requirements if they want, but cities, towns and counties must lift theirs.

Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear, a Democrat, said he would appeal to his GOP counterpart in neighboring Indiana, Gov. Eric Holcomb, to reconsider dropping the state’s mask mandate.

“My hope is he hears the president’s call,” Beshear said.

Oregon has one of the country’s strictest mask requirements. Even high school athletes must wear them while running races.

Competitors in a race in Eugene, famed as a running mecca, have had to wear masks because the state has mandated masks be worn during all practices and competitions for high school sports, the local Register Guard newspaper reported.

A handful of coaches from across the state petitioned Democratic Gov. Kate Brown and the Oregon Health Authority last month to make cross country exempt from the mask mandate. The appeal was denied.

“I’ve told my team to run at an effort that allows you to keep your mask on,” Sheldon High School coach Ian Dobson said. “The rules are the rules. It’s a horrible message to send if we say don’t follow the rules.

“The other side to that — I think it’s a stupid rule.”

Scott Gottlieb, a former Food and Drug Administration commissioner under former President Donald Trump, said a surge of cases hitting Europe does not mean that a similar spike in infections will also happen in the U.S.

“Everything that happened in Europe eventually happened here. Now I think the tables have turned. We’re ahead of Europe,” Gottlieb told CNBC, citing higher immunity in the United States due to vaccinations and previous infections. He is a board member of Pfizer, which makes a COVID-19 vaccine.

Spain on Tuesday changed its mask-wearing policy to make them mandatory in all outdoor activities, including during exercise, in swimming polls or on beaches. Masks were already mandatory in all public spaces, including outdoors, when people could not maintain a distance of at least 5 feet (1.5 meters) between them.

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This version corrects that Holcomb is governor of Indiana.

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Selsky reported from Salem, Oregon. Associated Press writers Rachel La Corte in Olympia, Washington; Andrew DeMillo and Jamie Stengle in Little Rock, Arkansas; Zeke Miller in Washington and Aritz Parra in Madrid contributed to this report.

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Follow Andrew Selsky on Twitter at https://twitter.com/andrewselsky.

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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