Florida city mandates masks as US divided over virus

Julia Benarrous with Michael Mathes in Washington

Houston (AFP) - The Florida city where Republicans will hold their national convention declared face masks mandatory Monday in a bid to stem coronavirus outbreaks, as alarming spikes in US cases prompt deep divisions over pandemic mitigation efforts.

Cases have flared to new highs in several states, and hours-long lines at testing sites in southern hotspot Texas are contributing to concerns about the ability to battle the pandemic in the United States, the world's worst-hit nation.

With the US toll surging past 125,000 deaths, and many of the 50 states experiencing sharp rises in new cases, governors have been forced to reimpose lockdowns on businesses like restaurants and bars, even as the White House blames the surge in cases on expanded testing and not simply community spread.

President Donald Trump refuses to wear a mask -- a message taken to heart by many of his supporters -- but local governments are imposing strict rules.

The city of Jacksonville, where Trump plans to hold his Republican Party's nominating convention in August, said it is adopting a "mandatory mask requirement for public and indoor locations, and in other situations where individuals cannot socially distance."

The announcement is a symbolic blow to Trump, who ordered the relocation of the convention to Jacksonville earlier this month after Charlotte, North Carolina, mandated strict social distancing measures.

It is also the latest reminder that the government and the White House have been sending mixed messages which have complicated efforts to rein in the pandemic in a country that has recorded more than 2.5 million infections.

As Trump signals his eagerness to move beyond the coronavirus, his own health advisor has warned of a looming inflection point.

"The window is closing for us to take action and get this under control," US Secretary of Health and Human Service Alex Azar told CNN on Sunday.

Eager to project pragmatism, Vice President Mike Pence on Sunday advocated the use of masks, but he also said the administration will "defer to governors," a signal it is not prepared to take a lead role in mandating action.

Pence wore a mask Sunday as he deplaned in Dallas, where he met Texas Governor Greg Abbott who days earlier ordered all bars closed in big cities as he acknowledged he re-opened his state too quickly.

"COVID-19 has taken a very swift and very dangerous turn in Texas over just the past few weeks," Abbott said Sunday.

The state's drive-up testing sites are busy. On Monday a line of more than 200 cars snaked through a parking lot in front of United Memorial Medical Center in northern Houston.

Fernando Galvez, a 24-year-old medical student, said he suffered from a fever, cough and chest tightness three days earlier so came to get tested, arriving at 4:00 am Monday.

"I've been waiting for like almost seven hours now, it's kind of crazy," he said through his car window.

- 'Wake up, America' -

In neighboring Arkansas, Republican Governor Asa Hutchinson said he was "encouraging mask wearing," a step that falls short of the mandatory orders such as the one issued by California's Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom.

Former virus epicenter New York has dramatically reduced its cases, and Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo urged Americans to take the pandemic threat more seriously.

"It is time to wake up, America. The White House has been in denial on coronavirus from the get go, and the federal response has just been wrong," Cuomo said.

Trump has largely turned away from the crisis. He spent Sunday at his Virginia golf club, and fired off dozens of incendiary tweets but largely steered clear of COVID-19 issues.

His election rival Joe Biden offered short, sharp guidance, tweeting: "Wear a mask."

While Democrats have urged Trump to reissue an emergency declaration on coronavirus, White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany said Monday the president had "no interest" in doing so.

"The president's always said there will be embers, but he's always said that the cure cannot be worse than the problem," she told Fox News.

In Florida, where 13,833 new cases were recorded at the weekend, Governor Ron DeSantis conceded there had been an "explosion" in new cases.

But he suggested he was powerless to stop young people from pouring back to the state's beaches and bars, often without masks.

"They're going to do what they're going to do," he said Sunday.

Miami and other locales including Key West announced beaches and bars would close over the July 4 holiday weekend.