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As coronavirus cases rise, governors reverse course after refusing statewide mask mandates

The governors of Iowa and North Dakota both issued statewide mask mandates for the first time, while Montana expanded its order.
Pedestrians with and without face masks walk in downtown Omaha, Neb., on July 31, 2020.
Pedestrians with and without face masks walk in downtown Omaha, Neb., on July 31, 2020.Nati Harnik / AP file

Several governors who refused to impose a statewide mask mandate at the start of the coronavirus pandemic are now reversing course as cases around the country surge past 11 million.

The country's 250,000th Covid-related death was recorded on Wednesday. The virus's mortality rate is rising, from a weekly average of 821 per day in early October to 1,167 per day last week, according to an NBC News analysis.


Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds issued the state's first mask mandate on Monday, requiring that anyone over the age of 2 wear a face covering when inside of a public indoor space and when they are within six feet of someone who is not a member of their household.

“The pandemic in Iowa is the worst it has ever been,” she said. “No one wants to do this. I don’t want to do this.”

The three-week mandate, which went into effect on Tuesday, also limits social gatherings to no more than 15 people indoors and 30 outdoors. It also restricts the operating hours that bars and restaurants can open for in-person dining.

“If Iowans don’t buy into this, we lose,” the governor said. “Businesses will close once again, more schools will be forced to go online, and our health care system will fail.”

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Reynolds, a Republican, had previously dismissed statewide mask mandates as a "feel good" measure, telling WHO-AM radio during a July 15 interview that there was no way to enforce such an order.

Around the time of her interview, the Center for Public Integrity obtained a document prepared by the White House Coronavirus Task Force that listed Iowa and 17 other states as being in the "red zone" for Covid-19 cases, meaning they had more than 100 new cases per 100,000 population.

The document, which was not publicized, recommended that those states impose more stringent protective measures and ask residents to wear a mask at all times.

North Dakota

The governor of North Dakota also issued the state's first mask mandate after months of resisting such action.

During a Friday night announcement, Republican Gov. Doug Burgum said that the State Health Officer issued an order requiring that all residents wear face coverings in all indoor businesses and public settings and when they cannot social distance outdoors.

“Our situation has changed, and we must change with it," he said.

The order will remain in effect until Dec. 13.

The order also requires that bars and restaurants close at 10 p.m. and operate at 50 percent capacity, as long as that does not exceed 150 people.

"To be clear, these are statewide requirements, not simply recommendations," Burgum said.


Montana Gov. Steve Bullock on Tuesday expanded a mask mandate statewide. It had previously only applied to counties with four or more active cases of Covid-19, but beginning Friday, masks will be required in all counties regardless of the case count.

The Democratic governor made the announcement as the state reported 1,500 new confirmed cases of Covid-19.

Nebraska is still refusing

Nebraska's governor Pete Ricketts is still refusing a statewide mandate but has relaxed his stance.

During a news conference on Monday, Ricketts urged residents to voluntarily wear face coverings but did not impose an order requiring residents to do so.

"My position is pretty clear on this," he said when asked about city leaders who are considering mask orders. "I've been pretty consistent throughout this entire pandemic, I don't think mask mandates are appropriate. I think that they breed resistance."

The Republican governor went on to say that masks are only one tool the state will use to fight the spread of the coronavirus and urged municipalities that considering mask ordinances to check with their legal advisors to "make sure they're staying in compliance with the law."

Nebraska reported 2,204 new coronavirus cases on Tuesday.

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