For months many Republican governors have resisted a mask mandate for their states, but as Trump prepares to leave the White House, quite a few of them have begun to embrace a message that Donald Trump have long resisted: To save the economy, we have to fight the virus.
The day after the presidential election, 16 Republican governors who had not yet imposed mask mandates said nothing would change under a President Biden. Yet this month, seven Republican governors including three of the 16 holdouts have either strengthened an existing mandate or imposed one as the pandemic crowded hospitals, exhausted medical staff and filled morgues.
North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum had said a statewide mask mandate was unnecessary, unworkable and unenforceable. Now nearly one in 1,000 people in his state has died of the coronavirus. Burgum reversed himself, saying Friday that the soaring number of hospitalizations during the first two weeks of November forced his hand. He is trying to “avoid a post-Thanksgiving crunch,” he said, when the state’s hospitals could get overwhelmed Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, after calling mandates unenforceable, enacted a limited one. Everyone in the state now must wear a mask indoors if they are within six feet of other people for at least 15 minutes.
New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, seeing hospitalizations double in two weeks, announced a statewide mask mandate last Thursday. “Obviously the decision did not come lightly,” Sununu said.
Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, another mandate skeptic, issued an emergency order Thursday that district and charter schools require masks for all students, faculty and staff on campus or on the bus. He hasn’t extended it to a broader population.
West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice tightened his state’s mask mandate as the number of ICU patients hit a record. The new order requires residents to keep their masks when inside public spaces even if they can maintain social distance. “We have got to realize what we’re dealing with here, it is a massive, massive killer,” Justice said at the time.
Even before Election Day, the shift had begun. Early in November, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, also citing overwhelmed hospitals, issued a mask mandate, after months of arguing for local control.
And Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, a moderate who already had a mandate, extended the rules, saying masks must be worn inside public places even when socially distancing is possible.
There are still holdouts. The Republican Party did not completely flip on the merits of mask-wearing when Trump became a lame duck. A few GOP governors — South Dakota’s Kristi Noem among them — have dug in so deeply that it’s hard to imagine them changing. “People who want to wear masks should wear masks and people who don’t shouldn’t be asked to wear one.”
Yet the party also presents a far less unified front on mask mandates than it did earlier this month. Many public health experts say masks are the single most important thing that people can do right now, even with a vaccine on the horizon. Vaccines will take months to reach all Americans. Trump painted the policy choices raised by the pandemic in black and white. Fight the virus or save the economy. That argument probably helped make the election as close as it was.
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