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Louisiana's Governor Orders That Masks Must Be Worn

NOEL KING, HOST:

All right, with me now for some context on Julio's story is Dr. Ashish Jha. He's the director of Harvard's Global Health Institute. Good morning, Dr. Jha.

ASHISH JHA: Good morning.

KING: OK, what does 15,000-plus cases in a single day say to you about the situation in Florida?

JHA: Yeah, so it's really quite dire. I mean, there were more cases in Florida yesterday than in all of Europe, including Russia and every other European country. I mean, things in Florida are quite bad. And unfortunately, all the signs suggest they're just going to get worse in the days and weeks ahead unless we really take aggressive action.

KING: It isn't just cases in Florida; it's also hospitalizations. More people are going into the hospital. Now, New York shut down in April. We all remember it. Everything was closed. It was rare to see people in the streets. It was rare to see a business open. Does Florida need to move in that direction? And if it doesn't, what exactly do you predict will happen here?

JHA: Yeah. So you're absolutely right. I mean, we've seen this very large spike in hospitalizations across the state. We're now - in the last week, we've really definitively started seeing increases in deaths across the state from coronavirus. So Florida is very much heading in the wrong direction. This is not just about testing.

I think basically, they have a couple of options. There is a small window here to stave off a full statewide shelter-in-place. They've got to get full - you know, everybody wearing masks. They've got to shut down all indoor activities. They really have to take aggressive action or I think they'll find themselves without any choice but to do shelter-in-place.

KING: OK, Dr. Jha, I'm going to ask you to hang out with us for a couple minutes because we're going to take a look at what has been going on in Louisiana. Over the weekend, the state said it would require people to wear face masks. More than 20 states at this point have done the same. Paul Braun with member station WRKF in Baton Rouge has been covering what's going on there. Good morning, Paul.

PAUL BRAUN, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: So this decision was made by the governor, John Bel Edwards, which is what we've come to expect - governors kind of taking the lead. Why did he make the decision now?

BRAUN: Well, Governor Edwards has been asking Louisiana residents to wear masks for months, but with no mandate in place, compliance with that request has been, at best, pretty spotty. And COVID cases and hospitalizations here are on the rise. On Friday, the state reported its highest single-day total for new cases since our outbreak began. And on Saturday, Edwards announced the shutdown of bars and the mask mandate you mentioned. And he made it clear he's not asking anymore. Here's a clip.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN BEL EDWARDS: And if you don't like the mask mandate, then don't like it, but wear your mask anyway. If you want to criticize me, criticize me. This isn't an easy thing to do. It's hard. And I understand it's going to be controversial. And I know that because 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.

BRAUN: So anyone 8 years old and older will be required to wear a mask in public. There are a few exemptions for folks with serious breathing problems. And three parishes in the state that have low cases in their particular area, they can opt out as well. Now, that's only three out of Louisiana's 64 parishes, and the state will reassess that in a couple of weeks.

KING: How is this going to be enforced? Will people get fines if they're out in the street not wearing masks? Like, what is the actual - what is the punitive part of this, I guess is what I'm asking.

BRAUN: Right. And Edwards has acknowledged that enforcement for this will be tricky. That's one of the reasons he's waited so long to issue the mandate. The enforcement is focused on businesses, which have already been subject to a lot of new restrictions on - around social distancing. Businesses now that allow their customers or employees to remain unmasked could receive a fine as high as $500, or the owner could face six months of jail time. Edwards says that customers who refuse to put on a mask and/or leave, a scenario that I think is familiar to anyone who's been scrolling through social media over the past few weeks, those folks could be cited for trespassing. I think the state fire marshal is going to be running point on this, and they've already stepped up their inspection visits for other social distancing measures, though other law enforcement entities could also get involved.

KING: Trespassing - that's really interesting. Now, I know that you are based in Baton Rouge, but you've been traveling to places outside of that city. What do you see when you go out? Are people wearing masks? And if they're not and you ask them why not, what do they tell you?

BRAUN: A lot of it comes down to this idea of, well, I don't think I'm at risk, folks saying, I'm not sick, so I don't feel a need to wear the mask. Some folks are saying it's, you know, a statement of their own personal liberty and they object to the idea on that premise.

I will say that in Baton Rouge, compliance with - we had a local mask mandate that went in effect in the past week. And before then, compliance when you go to the grocery store was pretty low. You didn't see a ton of people wearing masks. But once it did go into effect and the local government got involved, it jumped up precipitously. You could see just about everybody was wearing masks. So it bears that just a little bit of a nudge might help folks in the right direction. But...

KING: A nudge. A nudge is often the thing. WRKF reporter Paul Braun in Baton Rouge. Thanks, Paul.

BRAUN: Thank you.

KING: Still on the line with me is Dr. Ashish Jha, who directs Harvard's Global Health Institute. Doctor, what do you think about this idea of a nudge? I think everyone right now is asking themselves how useful is a mask mandate if it's not really tightly enforced?

JHA: Yeah. So I think a mask mandate is a really good idea. You know, my sense is that most Americans want to do the right thing. They certainly want to do the right thing for their families and for their communities. And so a little bit of, like, what we need is leadership and modeling. I want governors and mayors and any public official to be wearing them. I think if we had our local civic leaders and religious leaders talking about the importance of wearing masks, my sense is that will get us a long way there. And then there are a certain proportion of people who will need enforcement, as it - as they always do with rules and laws. But my hope is that's a pretty small percentage.

KING: What worries you most when you look at the current situation in the U.S.? Is it a situation like we saw in New York where all of Florida has to shelter in place? What's top of mind for you?

JHA: You know, I have to tell you I am incredibly worried about where we are as a country. About half of the country now - third to a half of the country really has outbreaks that are starting to get out of control. In a chunk of the country, it is out of control. And I still don't sense the urgency from our political leaders to really take this on. And if we don't, we're looking at weeks and months of a lot more suffering, a lot more death. And this is all wholly unnecessary. And it both worries me and frustrates me that we're not being more aggressive with this virus.

KING: Do you see a way out of this? Given the political situation, given that you've said you've seen sort of a lack of leadership from elected politicians, some people in the public simply do not want to do this, we also know that there's a lot of misinformation circling out there about wearing masks and what that means, how do we get out of this, to put it simply?

JHA: Yeah. So my sense is, you know, for a while, I had really been hoping for kind of national leadership on this. I am increasingly coming to believe that may not arrive anytime soon. I do think there are a bunch of governors, many governors who are doing a great job, many mayors who are doing a great job. I also think I want to see community leaders, religious leaders, civic leaders really step up and talk about the importance of taking this virus seriously.

Look; we have all the tools we need to get this virus under control and get our lives back, to open up schools, to do all the things we care about. We need local and state and, you know, unfortunately, we still do need federal leadership on this.

KING: Should schools be opening up in Florida in August, do you think? I know this is fiercely debated. What do you think, just very briefly?

JHA: Yeah. So I think we all are desperate to open up schools. In places like Florida, Arizona and Texas with large outbreaks, you can try to open them. It's going to be very hard to keep them open. So I think those governors have to really work on suppressing the virus if they want to get their kids back to school.

KING: Dr. Ashish Jha of Harvard's Global Health Institute, thanks so much for your time, as always.

JHA: Thank you.

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