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U.S. divided over mask wearing and schools reopening as coronavirus cases surge

by Reuters
Saturday, 18 July 2020 00:05 GMT

(Adds Oklahoma City mask ordinance, Friday data)

By Daniel Trotta

July 17 (Reuters) - Divided Americans clashed anew over mask mandates and the reopening of schools on Friday, with states and localities choosing conflicting strategies in the face of surging coronavirus cases.

In the state of Georgia, Governor Brian Kemp sued Atlanta's mayor to prevent her from mandating masks, while Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, leader of the country's third-largest school district, unveiled a plan to offer both in-person and remote instruction over the objection of the teachers' union.

The mask defiance has touched a nerve among medical professionals. More than 1,200 of them, including 161 nurses, have died from the coronavirus in the United States, according to the National Nurses United union.

"Everybody saying that (wearing a mask) is a violation of their freedom - no, it's not because a seatbelt is mandated and that's to save your life," said Sharon Taylor, 48, a cardiothoracic nurse in Atlanta.

With school set to resume in a few weeks, educators across the country have announced a variety of plans to restart teaching amid the pandemic.

California Governor Gavin Newsom, who until now has allowed school districts in his state of 40 million people to set their own policies, issued guidance on Friday that schools could start in-person instruction if they are in counties that for 14 days have stayed off a worsening trends watch list.

Thirty of the state's 58 counties are on the watch list and schools there must remain closed. Among them are Los Angeles, Sacramento and San Diego counties, accounting for nearly 40% of the state's population, where school districts already announced they were opting for full remote learning.

The United States has been averaging about 60,000 cases a day in July with cases rising in 41 states on Friday, based on a Reuters analysis of cases the past two weeks compared with the prior two weeks, deaths rising in 19 states. Texas and Arkansas reported a record number of deaths on Friday as Kansas, Ohio, North Dakota and Puerto Rico reported record case numbers.

Through it all, President Donald Trump has urged a return to normal, stressing the importance of reigniting the economy. The Trump administration and some health experts argue children are better off in classrooms for their development, and also to allow parents to return to work.

But the Chicago Teachers Union contends classes should only be taught remotely because "there is no safe way to reopen anything during a pandemic," union President Jesse Sharkey said.


Public health experts have pleaded with people to cover their mouths and noses amid a wider cultural divide in the United States.

The president in an interview with Fox News on Friday said he did not believe in implementing a national mask mandate as people should have a "certain freedom."

Top U.S. infectious disease doctor Anthony Fauci on Friday said he "would urge the leaders - the local political leaders in states and cities and towns - to be as forceful as possible in getting your citizenry to wear masks."

Miami Beach, Florida imposed an 8 p.m. curfew in its entertainment district after social media posts showed maskless revelers crammed into restaurant patios.

Oklahoma City's council voted in favor of an indoor mask requirement in the absence of a statewide face-covering mandate.

"This ordinance is our best chance right now to protect our healthcare system from collapse," said Republican Mayor David Holt.

In Georgia, Kemp a Republican and Trump supporter, urged all Georgians to wear masks for at least four weeks but said mandates were unenforceable and suggested they would hobble the economy.

"Brian Kemp does the bidding of President Trump," Atlanta's Democratic Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, who has tested positive for the coronavirus, told CNN on Friday. "Over 130,000 people in our state have tested positive for COVID-19... and this governor is taking taxpayer money to sue me personally."

Louis Charles, 68, of Atlanta, sided with the mayor on Friday as he wore a mask, all alone, sorting through his mail outside a post office.

"It's wrong," Charles said. "The mayor is trying to help people. This is a pandemic. How much worse does he want it?"

(Reporting by Daniel Trotta, Peter Szekely, Rich McKay, Lisa Lambert, Lisa Shumaker, Maria Caspani, Gabriella Borter, Andrew Hay, Liza Feria and Brendan O'Brien; Writing by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Howard Goller, Rosalba O'Brien and Cynthia Osterman)

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