By Rich McKay and Gabriella Borter
ATLANTA (Reuters) - Colorado and Arkansas on Thursday joined a growing list of U.S. states requiring face coverings in public places to combat a surge in coronavirus infections, after Georgia's governor moved the other way and barred such measures from being imposed at the local level.
With announcements from Colorado Governor Jared Polis, a Democrat, and Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson, a Republican, a majority of states - 26 out of 50 - have now sided with public health experts urging that face masks be mandatory, rather than a matter of personal choice.
Bucking the trend, Georgia's Republican governor, Brian Kemp, issued an executive order late on Wednesday suspending local face-mask regulations while saying residents were "strongly encouraged" to wear them.
He suggested an order mandating masks would be too restrictive.
After Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms of Atlanta, Georgia's capital and largest city, said she planned to defy Kemp's order and enforce a mandatory mask ordinance she issued on July 8, Kemp announced on Thursday he had filed suit to override her.
"This lawsuit is on behalf of the Atlanta business owners and their hardworking employees who are struggling to survive during these difficult times," Kemp said in a statement. "I refuse to sit back and watch as disastrous policies threaten the lives and livelihoods of our citizens."
Earlier, Savannah Mayor Van Johnson, who issued a mask mandate in his Georgia city on July 1, said on Twitter that Kemp's order demonstrated he "does not give a damn about us."
(GRAPHIC: Tracking the novel coronavirus in the U.S., https://graphics.reuters.com/HEALTH-CORONAVIRUS-USA/0100B5K8423/index.html)
'NEED TO DO MORE'
Colorado's order requires people to cover their nose and mouth in such indoor settings as office spaces and stores, as well as while congregating outside to wait for a taxi, bus, ride-share or other transportation service.
In Arkansas, individuals must wear face-coverings in all indoor or outdoor settings where they are exposed to non-household members and where social distancing of 6 feet or more is not possible. Both states provide for various exceptions.
Ohio Governor Mike DeWine, also a Republican, widened his earlier directive to include more circumstances where face masks are obligatory.
All three governors had resisted issuing mask mandates - an issue that has become heavily politicized - but said the resurgence of the health crisis in recent weeks left them no choice.
"The number of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths are numbers that speak for themselves and indicate that we need to do more," Hutchinson told a news briefing.
Coronavirus cases have spiked across the American South and West since local officials started loosening economic and social restrictions aimed at slowing the spread of the virus.
On Thursday, Florida, Texas and South Carolina each reported a record number of COVID-19 deaths for a single day - 156, 129 and 72, respectively.
At least three other states hit an all-time high in the number of new infections reported over the past 24 hours - Nevada with 1,447, Mississippi with 1,230 and Oregon with 429.
Thirty states have registered record daily increases in confirmed cases this month, many of them more than once, and 14 states have reported a greater number of deaths for a single day in July than ever before.
(GRAPHIC: Where coronavirus cases are rising in the United States, https://graphics.reuters.com/HEALTH-CORONAVIRUS/USA-TRENDS/dgkvlgkrkpb/index.html)
(Reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta and Gabriella Borter in New York; Additional reporting by Maria Caspani, Doina Chiacu, Lisa Shumaker, Peter Szekely and Keith Coffman; Writing by Sonya Hepinstall; Editing by Howard Goller, Rosalba O'Brien and Cynthia Osterman)