JACKSON, Miss. — Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves said Tuesday that he’s setting a statewide order for people to wear masks in public amid a recent surge in cases of the new coronavirus. The Republican also delayed the start of the school year for upper grades in eight counties that are hard-hit by COVID-19.
Reeves also said he will sign an order mandating that all adults and students wear masks in schools, unless there’s a medical reason that prevents them from doing so.
He is delaying the start of school for grades 7-12 in eight counties with more than 200 cases and 500 cases per 100,000 residents. The counties are Bolivar, Coahoma, Forrest, George, Hinds, Panola, Sunflower and Washington.
“We must pump the brakes in the hardest hit areas,” Reeves said.
Reeves said he firmly believes that his decision gives local schools “options to do what is best for kids.”
“I’m hopeful that those who cannot open safely will delay the reopening of their schools until at least Aug. 17,” Reeves said. “A week from now, my advice might be not to open until August the 24th.”
At the same media briefing, Mississippi State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs said starting traditional school in the near future is “nuts” and an “unmitigated risk.” He said the Department of Health is supportive of delaying school until the community transmission rate is lower, as well as of the mask mandates Reeves put into place.
Reeves had previously set a mask order in 38 of the 82 counties, saying he thinks a targeted order has been effective. As he announced the expansion of that mandate to the entire state, he said he’s aiming to slow the spread of the virus to decrease the stress on the health system.
“Wearing a mask — as irritating as it can be, and I promise you I hate it more than anyone watching today — is critical,” Reeves said.
Reeves said most local school districts will keep control over when and how to open schools for the academic year.
Schools are dealing with the reopening in different ways. Some have already gone back to classroom teaching in recent days. Some are planning a mix of in-person and online classes. A few districts have said they will only have online classes for a while. And some are delaying the start of the school year by a few weeks, until early September.
The plans haven’t been without risk: Corinth School District, which welcomed students back to the classroom about a week ago, is reporting five positive cases of coronavirus in its high school.
The Mississippi chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics said in a statement that it wants school openings in the state to be delayed until at least September, to see if coronavirus caseloads are clearly declining by then.
Dobbs issued a statewide order Tuesday requiring people who have tested positive for coronavirus to isolate at home for at least 14 days. Those who fail to comply could face six months to five years in prison and a fine between $500 and $5,000, according to the state health department.
The health officer said a lot of new cases are linked to social events where people who had been exposed to the virus made irresponsible decisions.
“If we can all just chill out for two or three weeks, consistent with the mask mandate and just not go to a party, don’t go to a shower, send your regrets to the wedding, … ” he said. “We are undermining our ability to have school and keep businesses open because we want to have dinner with our friends who are in from out of town. We are seeing this over and over and over again.”
Dobbs said as schools are reopening, this warning should be heeded more closely. Sports teams have started practicing again. Dobbs said students shouldn’t be playing in front of crowds of any size anytime soon.
The Health Department said Tuesday that Mississippi, which has a population of about 3 million, has had at least 62,199 reported cases and at least 1,753 deaths from COVID-19 as of Monday evening. That’s an increase of 1,074 confirmed cases and 42 deaths from numbers reported the day before.
The true number of virus infections is thought to be far higher because many people have not been tested and studies suggest people can be infected without feeling sick. For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms. For some, especially older adults and those with existing health problems, it can cause more severe or fatal illness.
Also on Tuesday, Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba issued an order limiting service at bars and nightclubs for one week to try to mitigate the spread COVID-19. Alcohol may not be sold at a bartop, but drinks may be served to people seated at tables.
Leah Willingham is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.
Follow AP coverage of the pandemic at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak.