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The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Republican governors who are changing their tunes on masks

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Health experts are unequivocal and have been for months: Wearing masks saves lives, and just urging people to consider masks is not enough. Health experts say government leaders need to mandate people put on a mask when they’re around others for a critical mass of people to do it and make a difference.

The data bear this out. Republican states with leaders who have resisted mask mandates are leading the nation in infections. The coronavirus has been spreading unchecked across the Midwest and Upper Midwest for weeks.

So it’s with extreme pressure and facing dire circumstances that three Republican governors who have resisted mask mandates are now requiring them. Their hope — and their challenge — is that residents who have heard from them for months that mask mandates aren’t needed will suddenly change their actions because their governor says so.

Here’s how these Republican governors are trying to pivot on masks.

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds

What she said then: Perhaps no Republican governor has done as complete a 180 on masks as Reynolds. Iowa started setting record highs in July for coronavirus infections, and a leaked White House document suggested a mask mandate for much of the state. Reynolds responded with a no-way, calling a mandate a “feel-good” measure: “No, I’m not going to mandate masks. I trust Iowans. I believe in Iowans,” Reynolds told local radio. “There’s no way to enforce it. Most of the states or entities that have done that, they’ve actually gone as far as to say we’re not going to enforce it, so it’s just kind of a feel-good.”

What she’s saying now: “It’s up to all of us so that the worst-case scenarios I just described don’t become reality,” she said Monday in a prime-time address to Iowans, after announcing a mask mandate, among other measures, and talking about the state’s virtually unchecked virus spread. Democrats have criticized her mask mandate as not going far enough, like including schools.

What prompted the change: Exponential growth in virus infections in the state. About 30 percent of all of the state’s virus infections since the pandemic reached Iowa in March have come in November, reports the Des Moines Register.

Utah Gov. Gary R. Herbert

What he said then: Cases have been rising in Utah since this summer. Two mayors pushed the governor to institute a statewide mask mandate then, which he sharply resisted. Herbert said he strongly encouraged masks, but he framed a mandate to wear them as more of a burden than a help. He argued in a statement that “requiring masks could create divisive enforcement issues at a time when we need to come together of our own accord around a shared concern for one another’s health.”

What he’s saying now: Herbert is putting much more stock in the power of government to protect Americans. “We cannot afford to debate this issue any longer,” he said in a video message last week blasted out to Utah residents. “Individual freedom is certainly important, and it is our rule of law that protects that freedom.”

What prompted the change: Health-care capacity. Hospitals warned that they might have to start rationing care if cases get much worse.

North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum

What he said then: For months, Burgum has been trying to carefully weave his message between public health experts and those who deny that masks can help, or even that the coronavirus exists. He got emotional in May when he urged people to stop making masks a culture war: “If someone is wearing a mask, they’re not doing it to represent what political party they’re in or what candidates they support,” he said, his voice breaking. “They might be doing it because they’ve got a 5-year-old child who’s been going through cancer treatments. They might have vulnerable adults in their life who currently have covid, and they’re fighting.”

Gov. Doug Burgum (R-N.D.) asked North Dakotans on May 22 to “dial up your empathy and understanding” by wearing a mask to help contain the spread of covid-19. (Video: North Dakota Department of Health/YouTube)

But that still did not manifest into a mask mandate.

“It’s not a job for government; this is a job for everybody,” he said in October as cases were rising dangerously. He emphasized that North Dakota has a system that works for it, despite what he said was a lot of pressure for more restrictions: “There are some that believe if either the federal government or the state would just issue more mandates or restrictions that all would be solved, that there’s somehow some kind of magic bullet that government can provide. There’s another side that believes any action serving the greater good related to public health are in fact infringements on their personal rights.”

What he’s saying now: A few weeks after those comments, Burgum is frank as North Dakota started leading the nation per capita in coronavirus infections these past few days: “Our situation has changed, and we must change with it,” he said as he announced statewide mask requirements that carry the potential of up to $1,000 in fines for violations.

What prompted the change: The Washington Post reports that the pressure for a mask mandate came from overworked health-care workers in the state, who were authorized to keep working even if they contracted covid-19 but were asymptomatic.

A Republican governor who has been vociferously defending mask mandates: West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice

He issued a mandate to wear masks in July, saying his administration was facing down a dangerous spread of the virus. And he celebrated the subsequent drop in cases, telling West Virginians: “That order saved a ton of lives. That’s all there is to it. Write it down."

This week, recently reelected after switching parties from Democrat to Republican, Justice expanded the mask mandate specifically in public buildings even if people are socially distanced. And he’s receiving significant pushback for it, so much so that he essentially told that side of the political debate to just stop it. “I need you to quit believing in any way that somebody is going to come and take your guns or that it’s unconstitutional or whatever it may be. Who cares about all that right at this moment? Right at this moment all we need to do is to some way break the chain of this killer that’s eating us alive.”