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Louisiana Issues Statewide Mask Order Amid Polarization Of Officials On The Issue

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Louisiana's coronavirus numbers are surging like in many places in the Deep South. So over the weekend, Gov. John Bel Edwards took a step he had previously resisted, issuing a statewide mask mandate.

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JOHN BEL EDWARDS: We've already seen some wild and crazy things being said about masks and mask mandates; so be it. It's the right thing to do. It's the essential thing to do.

CHANG: Louisiana is one of the top states for infections per capita as Rosemary Westwood of member station WWNO reports.

ROSEMARY WESTWOOD, BYLINE: Here in Louisiana, one of the biggest challenges has been that some elected leaders are both politicizing and polarizing public health efforts to contain the virus. And many people appear to be listening.

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DANNY MCCORMICK: The Constitution is being shredded before our very eyes.

WESTWOOD: That's GOP state Rep. Danny McCormick railing last week in a video against a local mandate to wear a mask in public in Shreveport. McCormick calls these orders an attack on liberty, then he attempts to destroy a mask with a chainsaw.

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WESTWOOD: In the video, McCormick also says people who don't wear masks will be treated like Jews in Nazi Germany. McCormick represents parts of Caddo Parish in the northeast part of the state, where 248 people have died since the outbreak and where cases are now surging. He's not the only Louisiana politician to attack masks. In parts of the state hit hardest by the virus, a congressman has repeated conspiracy theories. Mayors have refused to implement mask requirements, and some in the state Republican Party have tried, for months, to rescind the Democratic governor's public health restrictions.

SUSAN HASSIG: Frankly, it's been really, really frustrating because just a few weeks ago, we were in a, really, pretty good place.

WESTWOOD: That's Tulane University infectious disease epidemiologist Susan Hassig. This week, data from Harvard ranked Louisiana third in the nation for new cases per capita on a rolling seven-day average.

HASSIG: The curve is going to bounce back up if we don't keep jumping on it and stomping it down.

WESTWOOD: New Orleans was one of the early hotspots in the pandemic. Now what's happening across the country is also happening inside Louisiana. Areas that weren't initially hit hard by the pandemic in the spring are seeing a massive growth in cases. Timothy Haman is an infectious disease physician in Lake Charles, a hotspot.

TIMOTHY HAMAN: We are approaching the situation we're seeing in other cities like San Antonio and Houston, where the health care system is on the verge of being overwhelmed.

WESTWOOD: On Friday, the state reported the highest number of cases in a day since the pandemic's outbreak. For Edwards, the only Democratic governor in the Deep South, it's been tricky to get public buy-in for mask wearing when masks themselves have become a political football. And the same is true for Republican Mayor Nic Hunter of Lake Charles, who's watched his city get pummeled by the virus while some in the community still appear skeptical.

NIC HUNTER: God help us if we've come to a point in our society where during the middle of a pandemic, if we want to know medical or scientific information, we are trusting a meme on Facebook or what my brother-in-law heard - overheard at the supermarket.

WESTWOOD: But there's no avoiding politics in this pandemic. Tomorrow, Vice President Mike Pence will visit Louisiana and meet with the governor, giving Pence a very visible opportunity to show support for public health measures that could save lives.

For NPR News, I'm Rosemary Westwood in New Orleans.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.