Gov. Tate Reeves has announced that he signed an executive order changing all COVID-19 mask mandates to “recommendations” starting tomorrow. Reeves made the announcement at a press briefing in Jackson on Tuesday afternoon, and the Board of Aldermen voted to lift the mask mandate in Oxford that evening.
“Today, I signed what I expect will be one of my last executive orders regarding COVID-19. Our hospitalizations have plummeted, and our case numbers have fallen dramatically as well. In fact, our case numbers have fallen to the point where no county meets the original criteria for a mask mandate,” Reeves said in the briefing.
As of March 1, the Mississippi State Department of Health reported 301 new COVID-19 cases, 44 new deaths and 64 current outbreaks in long-term care facilities. The University of Mississippi has nine active confirmed cases and no on-campus outbreaks, according to the COVID-19 dashboard.
Reeves’s recommendations will replace the statewide mandates that were set to expire tonight. However, K-12 schools and indoor arenas will remain at 50% capacity, and K-12 students will continue to be required to wear masks when social distancing is not possible. This new order will remain until March 31.
“We’re not out of the woods. People still need to be careful,” State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs said.
Dobbs described the growing body of evidence that the MSDH has found when it comes to vaccinations, and he encouraged those to do so once they become qualified. The MSDH recently released new public health guidelines for people over the age of 65 and those 16 and older with chronic medical conditions that make them at risk for contracting the virus. The guidelines advise these populations to “avoid all social gatherings outside of the household or any in-person mass gathering, including religious ceremonies or sporting events, until fully protected by an approved COVID-19 vaccine.”
The Oxford Board of Aldermen also voted to lift its mask mandate on Tuesday in order to be in line with Reeves’s executive order. There have been a total 5,736 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Lafayette County thus far, but city officials say new cases are slowing.
Jimmy Allgood, director of emergency management for the city, said COVID-19 case numbers and trends were decreasing in Oxford before winter storms kept most Mississippians confined in doors for around a week. He also said the lowering numbers should be looked at cautiously because no testing or vaccinations could be performed while roads were closed due to winter weather.
Mayor Robyn Tannehill and Alderman John Morgan expressed support for ending the city’s mask mandate.
“I think that we’ve done a great job here, and a lot of that is because we were more strict than the governor’s orders early on, but I don’t see any reason now that we would not follow the governor’s guidelines,” Morgan said, adding that he hopes anyone who still wants to wear a mask in public spaces knows that they can do so.
Alderman Janice Antonow said she received calls from several senior citizens who were concerned about the possibility of the mask mandate being lifted. She suggested that the board still require certain essential businesses like grocery stores or pharmacies to enforce that customers wear masks.
Tannehill said if the board requires essential businesses to enforce a mask requirement, they will need to specify which businesses will be considered essential.
“I think it’s difficult at this stage of the game to require masks in some places and not in all indoors, but that’s the board’s choice,” Tannehill said. “I will want y’all to give me a specific list of what you consider essential if that’s the way you want to move forward.”
The board plans to meet with business owners in the near future to discuss the possibility of requiring masks in certain locations or having a certain time of day that is dedicated to senior citizens or shoppers who want to wear masks.
Tannehill posted a video to Instagram defending the Board of Aldermen’s decisions to follow Gov. Tate Reeves’s executive order, which lifted all county mask mandates in the state and allowed businesses to operate at full capacity on Wednesday.
“Our board and I have maintained that our decisions would be made on facts, data and advice from our health care professionals,” Tannehill said. “That’s exactly what we’re doing.”
Though Tannehill says the city is being influenced by the advice of medical professionals, most health officials have made it clear that they do not agree with Gov. Tate Reeves’s latest executive order. Thomas Dobbs, state health officer for the Mississippi Department of Health, said the MSDH still requires the use of masks and other COVID-19 prevention measures in healthcare settings shortly after the executive order went into effect.
“Since the beginning of the year, we have seen a 264% decrease in active cases in the Lafayette County community with the vaccination rates getting stronger daily, and being advised by healthcare professionals that herd immunity is much higher than recorded,” Tannehill said.
“I was hoping this day would come on the day that vaccines were open for everyone,” Tannehill said. “I think we’re right around the corner from seeing that, but this is where we are, so (I’ll) just let the board talk about how you want to move forward. I think the state is ready to open.”