Doctors, mayors plead for mask enforcement as COVID-19 cases continue to spike

Christopher Wilson
Senior Writer


As COVID-19 cases continue to surge in some states, mayors, backed by health experts, are urgently requesting the authority to impose mandatory mask wearing — with little success so far.

On Tuesday night, a number of doctors pleaded with the Montgomery, Ala., City Council to make mask wearing mandatory. The request was supported by Mayor Steven Reed, who said, “We are at a point that we cannot sustain much longer. ... Our hospitals are reaching a breaking point.”

Montgomery County has more cases than any other county in Alabama, which as a state has seen its case total spike upward over the last 14 days. State health officials said a number of the hospitals in the state have reached all-time highs in numbers of COVID-19 patients.

“The units are full with critically ill COVID patients,” Dr. William Saliski of Jackson Hospital said, noting that 90 percent of the patients in the ICU are Black. “This mask slows that down, 95 percent protection from something as easy as cloth. ... If this continues the way it’s going, we will be overrun.”

A man in Houston receives a haircut in early May as social distancing guidelines to curb the spread of the coronavirus are relaxed. (Callaghan O’Hare/Reuters)

Some council members said they doubted a mask requirement could be enforced. The measure failed to pass, with the council divided 4-4. All three Black council members were in favor, and four of the five white council members present voted against it. 

“At the end of the day, if an illness or a pandemic comes through, we do not throw our constitutional rights out the window,” said Councilman Brantley Lyons, explaining his vote against the measure. Doctors in the crowd urged Lyons to come visit them in the hospital.

Earlier that day, Montgomery County Commissioner Elton Dean said the county didn’t have the power to implement a mask requirement but asked individual businesses to do so.

“Today, I want to request, not require, request that our big box stores and all the companies that we allow to open back up for business ... they can require people coming into their facility to wear a mask,” Dean said.

Birmingham, the largest city in the state, implemented a mask ordinance on May 1 and recently extended it to July 3. While the vote in Montgomery fell short, the cities of Memphis, Tenn., and Raleigh, N.C., approved mask mandates in an attempt to curb cases.

A new study released this week found that a few hundred thousand coronavirus cases may have been averted due to face-covering mandates.

Alabama is not the only state dealing with a surge without a mask ordinance in effect. Arizona has become one of the largest viral hot spots in the country, and hundreds of medical professionals there have signed letters to Republican Gov. Doug Ducey asking him to issue a mask requirement.

"By wearing masks, we can curtail a huge surge of COVID-19 cases in Arizona and reduce unnecessary mortality in our community,” read one of the letters, signed by 688 medical professionals.

“No social distancing, going to bars and happy hour, not wearing masks — it seemed like the general public assumed the threat was over when it was really only just beginning,” read a letter from Dr. Christine Severance, a family physician in Phoenix. “In addition to the governor giving an executive order about the masks, I think we need to get support from other leaders. ... We need a widespread effort.”

Ducey’s office issued a statement saying Arizonans “should wear a face-covering in public,” but the governor has not endorsed a legal requirement. On Tuesday, Arizona set record highs for both new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations due to the virus.

“We know that it’s in the community, and that we can’t stop the spread,” said Dr. Cara Christ, the state’s top public health official, last week. “We can’t stop living, as well.”

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announces the reopening of more businesses at a press conference in Austin on May 18. (Lynda M. Gonzalez/The Dallas Morning News via AP, Pool)

Mayors of Texas’s nine largest cities sent a letter of their own Tuesday, asking Republican Gov. Greg Abbott to grant them the “authority to set rules and regulations” mandating face masks. The state also saw a record high number of new cases on Tuesday. 

“A one-size-fits-all approach is not the best option. We should trust local officials to make informed choices about health policy. And if mayors are given the opportunity to require face coverings, we believe our cities will be ready to help reduce the spread of this disease,” wrote the mayors of Houston, San Antonio, Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth, El Paso, Arlington, Plano and Grand Prairie. “If you do not have plans to mandate face coverings statewide, we ask that you restore the ability for local authorities to enforce the wearing of face coverings in public venues where physical distancing cannot be practiced.”

In late April, Abbott signed an executive order limiting the power of local leaders, stating that “no jurisdiction can impose a civil or criminal penalty for failure to wear a face covering.” 

Despite a rise in cases, Texas moved forward with its reopening on June 3, allowing bars to open at 50 percent capacity and restaurants at 75 percent capacity.

“I make clear on a daily basis around the entire state of Texas that wearing a mask is very important, and local officials send that message,” Abbott said Tuesday. “Putting people in jail, however, is the wrong approach for this thing.”

More than 116,000 people have died in the United States from COVID-19, according to tracking from Johns Hopkins University. Both the death total and the number of positive cases — more than 2.1 million — are the most of any nation in the world.

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