By Eric Levenson, CNN
The mask mandates are coming back — and so, too, are mandates against mask mandates.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued updated guidance this week saying that people in areas of “substantial” and “high” transmission should wear a face mask indoors. The agency also said all teachers, staff, students and visitors in schools should wear masks indoors, regardless of vaccination status.
Following that advice, some cities and local school districts moved to install their own mask mandates. But in a number of Republican-led states, including Texas, Florida, Missouri, Arizona and Iowa, state officials have passed laws or used their authority to stop those requirements and keep mask usage optional.
The renewed fights are a throwback to last year’s fraught debates over lockdowns and masking that often pitted Republican-led states against Democratic-led cities and school districts. The vaccines — effective at protecting people from infection and severe illness — had pushed those debates to the backburner until this week’s CDC guidance.
The CDC explained its decision by saying the Delta variant of Covid-19 is more transmissible and more likely to infect fully vaccinated people.
“We’re seeing now that it’s actually possible, if you are a rare breakthrough infection, that you can transmit (the virus) further, which is the reason for the change,” CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said Tuesday.
The issue is particularly fraught in schools, as children under 12 are not yet eligible to be vaccinated. Among the 12 largest districts in the country, all are requiring masks except those in Florida and Texas, where the governors have banned mask mandates in schools, prior to Tuesday’s updated CDC guidance.
Similarly, Missouri’s Attorney General has filed a lawsuit to stop St. Louis from instituting a mask requirement and threatened a similar lawsuit against Kansas City’s proposed mask mandate.
Here’s a look at the fights we’ve seen thus far.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order in May prohibiting state entities such as counties, public school districts, public health authorities and government officials from requiring mask wearing.
“Texans, not government, should decide their best health practices, which is why masks will not be mandated by public school districts or government entities. We can continue to mitigate COVID-19 while defending Texans’ liberty to choose whether or not they mask up,” Abbott said in a news release.
On Tuesday, a Texas teachers group called on Abbott to reverse his stance as the new school year approaches and Covid-19 cases are on the rise.
The Texas State Teachers Association, the Texas affiliate of the National Education Association, said that individual school districts should be allowed to require masks in school based on the local health conditions in their communities, according to a statement.
“If Governor Abbott really cares about the health and safety of Texas students, educators and their communities, he will give local school officials and health experts the option of requiring masks in their schools,” said TSTA president Ovidia Molina.
Molina told CNN on Thursday that she had not heard from the governor about their plea.
“What we’re fearful is that we’re going to be in classrooms where that student that does get too sick, that does die, and this all could have been prevented,” she said.
In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis has pushed to keep mask usage optional, but some school districts have not heeded his pitch.
In Broward County, the school board on Wednesday voted to mandate masks in schools when they reopen at a hearing marred by anti-mask protesters.
“I personally think this is a local issue, it’s not a state issue,” said member Patricia Good of District 2. “We’re the ones that are going to have to deal with the consequences when our students and staff become ill. It’s already been noted that cases in Broward are increasing in an alarming rate and placing our students and staff in a potentially unsafe environment to me is irresponsible.”
Similarly, Miami-Dade County, the largest school district in the state, announced it is reconsidering its policy to keep masks optional. District superintendent Alberto M. Carvalho said the district will announce its final decision on masks about two weeks before school starts on August 23.
“Unfortunately it has, to a certain extent, [been] politicized. We are not going to allow the politics of this issue to interfere with our rational and timely decision,” Carvalho said.
DeSantis has criticized mask mandates and focused instead on vaccinations.
“I get a little bit frustrated when I see some of these jurisdictions saying, even if you’re healthy and vaccinated you must wear a mask because we’re seeing increased cases,” DeSantis said last week in St. Petersburg. “Understand what that message is sending to people who aren’t vaccinated. It’s telling them that the vaccines don’t work.”
He has recently hinted he may call a special session of the legislature to ban such mask mandates, saying he wanted to protect kids who “want to breathe freely.”
“Many school boards are making the decision to go mask-optional, which is the right decision from our perspective,” press secretary Christina Pushaw said in a statement. “However, if Miami-Dade County Public Schools does decide to mandate masks, I’d just refer you back to Governor DeSantis’ comments from the literacy presser last week: He hinted that the state legislature could do a special session to ensure a normal, mask-optional school year.”
Missouri’s legal drama over mask mandates has already led to one lawsuit and threats of another.
As of Monday, St. Louis city and county required those ages 5 and older to wear masks in indoor public spaces and on public transportation as the region continues to battle some of the highest Covid-19 infection and hospitalization rates in the country.
In response, Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt filed a motion for a preliminary injunction and temporary restraining order against the mandate. And on Tuesday night, the St. Louis County Council voted 5-2 to overturn the indoor mask mandate, leading to questions of their authority to do so.
In addition, Kansas City, Missouri, Mayor Quinton Lucas announced plans to reinstate an indoor mask mandate in the city on August 2, citing the CDC guidance.
“With a 15 percent increase in hospitalizations over the past week and a full vaccination rate of just 39 percent in Kansas City, the CDC and our own Health Department have issued recommendations that all persons —regardless of vaccination status — begin masking in all places of indoor public accommodation,” Lucas said in a press release.
Schmitt said in a tweet that he planned to sue over their proposed mask mandate, even though it has not even been filed.
“What are you suing about? Do you want us to just schedule a debate on Fox News so you can get the press,” Lucas wrote in a tweet to Schmitt.
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CNN’s Hannah Sarisohn, Caroline Kelly, Elizabeth Stuart, Veronica Stracqualursi, Dan Merica, Keith Allen, Rosa Flores, Kacey Cherry, John Couwels, Paul P. Murphy, Maria Cartaya and Jacqueline Howard contributed to this report.