IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

In the wake of declining statewide mask mandates, cities and counties are picking up the slack

Where states are retiring mask mandates, cities are often creating them.
Get more newsLiveon

When Mississippi lifted its statewide mask mandate in March, some local governments followed suit, but the city of Jackson never wavered on having its own mask requirement.

Jackson Mayor Chokwe Lumumba, who oversees Mississippi's largest city, told NBC News, “Covid itself, its presence in my city will dictate the presence of a mask mandate.”

“We don't have the luxury of simply waiting for a solution to fall in our laps,” he said. “We have to take the bull by the horns ourselves, and so that's what we intend to do.”

Across the country, states are turning away from mask mandates, leaving room for cities and counties to institute their own.

Since the end of May, more than 20 states have changed direction on statewide mask mandates, according to an NBC News analysis. Of those, all but Louisiana, Nevada, Oregon and Washington, D.C., have loosened masking requirements. This comes amid the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidance in May relaxing its mask recommendation and its July guidance tightening it again.

From Jackson, Mississippi, to Boone, North Carolina, and from Kansas City, Missouri, to Los Angeles, cities in states that have loosened or done away with mask mandates are creating their own — where they can.

Lumumba said he and local health officials followed the science and case numbers when instituting a mask mandate in July 2020 despite resistance.

Mississippi's low vaccination rate helped shape the decision to keep it in place throughout the pandemic, Lumumba said, even as other local authorities dropped theirs following the lifting of the state mask mandate in March.

Image: Concertgoers in Los Angeles.
A masked fan is surrounded by unmasked fans during Kaskade's performance at SoFi Stadium, on July 17, in Los Angeles.Chris Pizzello / Invision/AP file

“We're learning our way through this pandemic like everyone else and trying to fix the bike while riding it at the same time,” he said. “But to the extent that we're leading in terms of policy in the state, it's a reflection of necessity. We know that we are the largest city by a factor of three; we know that we are not only the capital of Mississippi, but the capital of health care in the central Mississippi region.”

“The decisions we make not only impact the residents of our city, but it impacts the surrounding communities, whether they decide to have a mask mandate or not,” he added.

Given that so many communities are interconnected, Lumumba said the inconsistency in rules not only puts “the people in those other communities in danger, but it puts our community in danger as well.”

“We've been crying out for leadership from the top down in every way,” he said. “I think that at this point, the science is clear and the numbers are clear that a mask mandate is more likely than not a necessity that the state should have.”

Just four states and Washington, D.C., had mask mandates as of Friday.

At least nine states — including Arkansas, Arizona and Montana — have restricted local jurisdictions from imposing mandates of their own.

When Arkansas dropped its mask mandate in March, Gov. Asa Hutchinson firstallowed local governments to enforce their own. But he later signed a bill banning state and local mask mandates. The law had been in effect from the end of July until an Aug. 6 judge's order temporarily blocked it as cases and hospitalizations rise in the state.

A day before the judge's decision came down, Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott Jr. issued an executive order mandating masks in indoor public spaces.

“Clearly, it wasn't a popular decision, but it was the right decision, and when you focus on doing what's right, nothing else matters,” he said. “Leaders have to lead. We have to do what's best for the residents’ public safety and health and welfare. Those are hard decisions, particularly when it's not popular, but we were elected to take an oath and to fulfill that oath. And that's what we've done.”

Elsewhere, some municipalities have joined together to require masking, as state rules have fallen away.

After California relaxed its mandate, several counties announced new ones, and now more than 17 million of the state’s 39 million residents live under mask mandates.

Matt Brown, a communications specialist with the Sonoma County Administrator’s Office in California, said it made the decision to reissue a mask mandate earlier this month along with six other area counties that felt it was necessary “as a region” due to the spread of delta.

“This new ballgame, with this new opponent of the delta variant, it's not your 2020 virus anymore. This is a kind of a new world that we're living in,” he said. “Even with the vaccine, we're seeing hospitalizations go up.”

“We know that masks work in limiting the spread of the virus, and indoors especially is a place where it's needed,” he said.

To those who are tired of having to once again wear masks indoors, Brown said, “we know that pandemic fatigue is real” at this stage of the pandemic.

“But we're still seeing people go into the hospital, and we're still seeing people dying," he said. "So, you know, therefore the pandemic is not over.”

After Maryland did away with its mask mandate, counties and cities across the state passed new ones. Multiple Massachusetts towns have passed mandates now that the state's mandate became an advisory.

In Connecticut this month, Gov. Ned Lamont stopped far short of a statewide mask mandate and issued a provision allowing individual cities and counties to pass their own mandates. New Haven was the first city to do so.

The city of Baltimore reinstated its indoor mask mandate on Monday after being one of the last localities to lift it in early July. Mayor Brandon Scott said the reason for the return was simple: Cases are spiking around the country driven by the delta variant.

“This four-week period vs. the previous four-week period, we have a 680 percent increase in cases,” Scott said.

“We know what's happening and what's driving it, and I think it’s that simple,” he said. “We don't want to go back to having people die and high numbers every day from this virus, and that's the reality and that's why we did it.”

Scott said people who are unvaccinated and don’t want to follow the mask mandate should “just shut up and get the vaccine.”

“They should look in the mirror. They're the reason why we're seeing what's going on, folks who are listening to this misinformation,” he said.

Scott said people should focus on the reality of the hundreds of thousands of Americans and hundreds of people in Baltimore who have died because of the coronavirus and not the partisan politics of mask mandates and vaccinations.

“That's what we should be focusing on: people that lost their lives,” he said. “So, those folks should just shut up, get the vaccine, wear a mask, so that we all can move on.”