More than 20 states have now issued orders requiring people to wear face masks in public as the rate of new coronavirus cases surges to record heights in parts of the United States.
The U.S. has recorded more than 1 million coronavirus infections over the past month alone, pushing the number of confirmed cases past the 3 million mark this week.
If more Americans cover their faces to prevent spreading the coronavirus, tens of thousands of COVID-19 deaths could be prevented in the coming months, according to recent research based on predictive models.
The list of states with mask mandates includes California, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nevada, New York, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Virginia, Washington and West Virginia.
Similar mandates in Texas and Ohio are limited to counties where the coronavirus case rate surpasses government thresholds. Hawaii also has a statewide mask mandate, which applies to customers and staff at businesses.
Two of the worst-hit states — Florida and Arizona — still don't have statewide mandates, leaving the matter up to cities and counties. It wasn't until last month that Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey rescinded his ban that had prevented local officials from requiring face coverings.
Some of the statewide mandates are the target of legal challenges. Face masks are a divisive topic in the U.S., where politicians and interest groups are using the issue to attack their rivals. Opponents of the mandates have filed lawsuits in several states, trying to prevent them from taking effect.
A Kentucky judge issued a ruling Thursday that would limit Gov. Andy Beshear's ability to use emergency orders to fight the COVID-19 pandemic. The governor said he will appeal – and he issued a new order requiring face masks in public later that same day.
"Beshear said the ruling would not prevent him from proceeding with the mask order," NPR member station WFPL reported.
Beshear and other governors who have issued such orders said face coverings are the best way to avoid a second round of near-total shutdowns that have already closed many businesses and put millions of people out of work.
The staggering rise in new cases began after states reopened their economies in May. Since early June, nine states have ordered new mandates or strengthened existing rules requiring face masks.
"It is important that we wear face coverings as people begin to interact more and more," Maine Gov. Janet Mills said this week. "Doing so can slow the spread of COVID-19, protect the health and safety of those around us, support businesses and allow us to safely reopen our economy."
Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak – who recently apologized for being photographed maskless while out at dinner – sought to persuade Nevadans to follow his mask order by presenting a hypothetical:
"If back in March, before we shut down the vast majority of our economy, I said to you: We can keep our economy open if everyone agrees to wear masks and maintain 6 feet in person-to-person distance. Who would have not accepted that offer?"
In New Mexico, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said Thursday that the virus has been "unleashed" in part because people aren't wearing masks.
"The virus has been unleashed: Too many of us are still not wearing masks," she said. "Too many of us are still congregating in groups, taking risks with our own lives and endangering the health of our family members, our neighbors and our state."
All of the statewide face-covering orders include exceptions for young children, and for people with medical conditions that could make wearing a mask dangerous. But there are some key differences – chiefly, whether masks are required only indoors or in all public settings.
Several states that initially required people to wear masks indoors recently expanded their rules to include any outdoor public area where physical distancing isn't possible. New Jersey, for example, took that step this week.
"The hot spots we're seeing across the nation and certain worrisome transmission trends in New Jersey require us to do more," Gov. Phil Murphy said. "In the absence of a national strategy on face coverings, we're taking this step to ensure that we can continue on our road back as one New Jersey family."
The U.S. is not among the dozens of countries that have instituted face mask mandates to protect people during the pandemic. The Trump administration has encouraged people to wear masks — but President Trump has frequently refused to wear one.
Several high-profile Republicans have urged the White House to provide more clarity and support for wearing masks.
"Unfortunately, this simple, lifesaving practice has become part of a political debate that says: If you're for Trump, you don't wear a mask. If you're against Trump, you do," Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said last month, calling on the president to set an example by wearing a mask.
In many states, enforcement of the face-covering mandates is an open question. A number of law enforcement agencies in Ohio, for instance, said they don't want their officers to enforce the mandates. When West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice announced his indoor mask mandate earlier this week, he did not include any formal enforcement mechanism, relying instead on businesses to make sure customers comply.
Opponents of the mask mandates call them an infringement on basic rights. But supporters say that while masks might be inconvenient, they're vital to stopping the coronavirus.
When she strengthened Maine's mask rules, the governor said, "This simple gesture is a small price to pay for knowing you could save someone's life."