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U.S. sees heated debates at state, local government levels over mandatory mask wearing

In the United States, which has the most confirmed coronavirus cases and deaths in the world, authorities wrestled Wednesday with balancing demands for constitutional rights and personal freedom with warnings from health officials that being lax will have deadly consequences.

Some Republican governors say statewide edicts on masks would meet with resistance at county level

The entrance to the H Mart Groceries & More in Mesa, Ariz., has signs indicating customers are required to wear masks, but it is among the states where there has been resistance to mandatory mask wearing despite a persistent number of COVID-19 cases. (Ross D. Franklin/The Associated Press)

When the coronavirus flared in China's capital this week, Beijing cancelled flights, suspended reopenings and described the situation as "extremely grave." But with cases rising in some U.S. states, local officials have balked at even requiring people to wear masks.

In the United States, which has the most confirmed cases and deaths in the world, authorities wrestled Wednesday with balancing demands for constitutional rights and personal freedom with warnings from health officials that being lax will have deadly consequences.

The mask debate is playing out nationwide, notably in hard-hit states where face coverings have become a political and cultural debate. According to Johns Hopkins University, the U.S. death toll has exceeded 117,000.

Health directors and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say wearing face coverings in public is essential to slow the spread of the virus.

In Arizona, more than 1,100 people visited emergency rooms on Tuesday alone with positive or suspected cases. Alabama also is running out of hospital space, stirring impassioned debate over a mask requirement. Other states that haven't mandated face coverings, like Texas and Florida, are seeing infections soar.

WATCH | Mandating masks isn't so simple:

Infectious disease specialist Dr. Isaac Bogoch weighs in on mandatory masks and Ontario's reopening plan. 1:29

Hundreds of medical professionals signed a letter urging Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey to require them. Facing mounting pressure to act as cases surge, the Republican said cities were free to mandate masks.

"For some things, a statewide directive or executive order works very well," said Ducey. "If you have 12 or 13 counties that say 'pound sand' on an executive order ... it's a self-defeating executive order."

Arizona has the nation's highest seven-day average positive test rate: 17.7 per cent, or about double the national average and well above the 10 per cent threshold that health officials find worrisome. It also has the most new cases per capita in the U.S. in the past 14 days.

The state's leading hospital system says it's almost running out of beds, and several restaurants and other businesses have closed because staff tested positive in the last week.

Florida seeing cases rise in young adults

The same thing is happening in parts of Florida, where people under 35 are testing positive at a higher rate since the pandemic began, contributing to a surge in cases, officials said Wednesday.

The coastal city of St. Petersburg, Fla., had three popular bars close after employees tested positive, and it's now requiring workers who have contact with the public to wear masks — which some hard-hit cities in southern Florida have been doing for weeks.

Rick Kriseman, the city's mayor, said he also plans to require people to cover their faces in businesses and other public spaces.

"We can wear a mask, protect others and ourselves, or we can contribute to someone's death. Maybe even our own," Kriseman said.

The Democrat said Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis has encouraged people to use masks but not mandated them.

DeSantis said he has no intention of closing Florida's economy again despite the statewide spike in new cases, which topped 1,000 Wednesday for the 15th consecutive day. He said many of those getting sick are young and unlikely to suffer serious illness or death.

WATCH | Recent hot spots concerning, says U.S. expert:

States that didn't shut down fast enough and reopened too early are seeing a rising number of hospitalizations, says Dr. Teena Chopra of Wayne State University. 3:52

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death.

Fears about growing numbers of infections in younger people pushed officials in the San Antonio area to order masks in public as infections keep rising in Texas.

"What we are doing here is to protect the life and safety of the San Antonio community," Mayor Ron Nirenberg said, noting that most infections in the area are in people younger than 40.

Later Wednesday, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, said local governments could force businesses to require customers and workers to wear masks but that he wouldn't issue a statewide order. The second-most populated state set daily records for new COVID-19 cases, with 3,129, and hospitalizations. The 2,793 hospitalizations mark a daily high for the 10th time in 11 days.

Divisive council meetings in Alabama, California

In Montgomery, Ala., where cases are spiking, the issue of masks erupted during a city council meeting, where members rejected a proposal to mandate them at public gatherings of 25 or more.

Dr. Bill Saliski, a lung specialist at Jackson Hospital in Montgomery, called on the city to pass a mask requirement and declared: "If this continues the way we're going, we're going to be overrun."

Some city leaders voiced concern about trampling on people's rights.

"I think to make somebody do something or require somebody to wear something is an overreach," councilman Brantley Lyons said.

Health services worker Summer Deibert, left, checks the temperature of James McCluskey, right, as he arrives for work before the reopening of the San Diego Zoo on June 11. California, which has seen over 5,200 COVID-19 deaths, has reopened some tourist attractions. (Gregory Bul/The Associated Press)

Despite its liberal reputation, heated battles have also been seen in California.

Last week, the chief health officer for Orange County in Southern California resigned amid protests and personal attacks after she issued an order to wear masks in public. Four other health officers in California have resigned or retired in the last two months, as have two public health department directors, local media have reported, as cases and deaths continue to rise in the state.

Hospitalizations have spiked by 40 per cent in San Joaquin, and the county is one of ten in the most-populous U.S. state put on a watch list of places that might be ordered to lock down their economies again after weeks of careful reopening.

But when Michael Tubbs, mayor of the county seat of Stockton, submitted an ordinance requiring residents to wear masks when they are in public, he did not get a single vote from the six other members of the city council.

It is "a political hazard to act in the interest of public health," complained Tubbs, a liberal whose city has several conservatives on the council.

On Tuesday, the state reported nearly 160,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases and over 5,200 deaths.

With masks becoming a political symbol, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden has taken aim at President Donald Trump's approach to the pandemic.

"Donald Trump wants to style himself as a wartime president. Unlike any other wartime leader, he takes no responsibility, he exercises no leadership, now he has just flat surrendered the fight," Biden said Wednesday.

Biden has worn a mask repeatedly at public events, while Trump hasn't, even on occasions such as touring auto factory floors when they are required. Aides say Trump believes they're unflattering and that wearing one projects weakness.

With files from Reuters

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