Shopping in Walmart safer than voting as Mississippi makes masks optional at polls

Published 8:57 pm Monday, October 12, 2020

In Mississippi, those entering a school, a Wendy’s or a Walmart must wear masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19. But those entering packed polling places don’t have to don one.

“This is absolute insanity,” said Dr. Claude Earl Fox III, a Mississippi native and former head of public health in Alabama. “What’s to be gained by a no-mask requirement on Election Day?”

Mississippi Secretary of State Michael Watson says masks can’t be mandated at the polls this November because it’s a federal election.

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Assistant Secretary of State Kendra James explained that while their office recommends wearing masks, “the governor, nor anyone else, may impose requirements on voting. No entity other than Congress, the Mississippi Legislature or a validly enacted constitutional amendment may place requirements, such as wearing a mask, on voters.”

That hasn’t stopped some governors from stepping in. Minnesota’s governor ordered voters to wear masks to polling precincts.

Some groups challenged that mandate, saying that wearing a mask violates the First Amendment, but a federal judge dismissed the challenge, saying, “There is no question that Minnesota has the constitutional authority to enact measures to protect the health and safety of its citizens.”

ABC News contacted all 50 states about their mask requirements on Election Day. Of the 39 that responded, 33 plan to require masks or strongly recommend them. Of those that didn’t respond, seven have a mask mandate in place.

In Mississippi, state Rep. Jeramey Anderson, D-Escatawpa, introduced a bill that failed to pass that would have required all voters to wear a mask in and around polling places.

“Voters who aren’t wearing masks could put public health at risk during the coming presidential election and elections following,” Anderson wrote.

Hinds County is requiring voters to wear masks on Election Day.

“We will be providing masks to people that do not have them,” said Hinds County Circuit Clerk Zack Wallace. “We don’t want to turn anyone down for voting.”

People can’t be denied the right to vote, Wallace said, but when it comes to masks, they have to wear them as a matter of public health and safety. Failing to do so, Wallace said, “is not taking care of people.”

On Aug. 4, Gov. Tate Reeves put in place a mask mandate for all citizens. Last week, he became the first governor to rescind that mandate.

“Public and private social gatherings and recreational activities shall be limited to groups of no more than 20 people in a single indoor space or groups of no more than 100 people in an outdoor space where individuals not in the same household are in close proximity (less than 6 feet) to each other,” his Sept. 30 order says.

He did not, however, apply this restriction to voting precincts.

Spokesman Parker Briden said Tuesday that Reeves “strongly encourages mask usage and believes that Mississippians should wear one when they go to the polls and vote.”

In a press conference on Friday, Watson said, “We need to make sure Mississippians feel safe and comfortable in going to the polls on Nov. 3.”

His office is delivering more than $500,000 worth of COVID-19 safety supplies, including hand sanitizer, gloves and masks, to circuit clerks across the state.

He said these steps ensure polling places are safe for the public, for staff and for poll workers.

But some poll workers aren’t convinced.

Ardell Hinton, a 65-year-old retiree in Ridgeland, was excited to begin training as a poll worker, but when she found out that Mississippi officials would not require voters to wear masks, she quit.

“I’m not willing to sit there for 10 or 12 hours and risk my life for that,” she said. “That’s why I backed out.”

Failure to require masks makes no sense, Hinton said. “It’s the attitude of some people saying, ‘You can’t tell me what to do.’ What happened to the idea we could sacrifice for each other? We’ve lost too many lives.”

For their part, health officials are urging voters to wear masks when they go to vote.

“No matter the activity, all possible steps should be taken to lessen the chance a virus could be transmitted between people who are in close proximity, especially when indoors,” said Dr. LouAnn Woodward, vice chancellor for health affairs at the University of Mississippi Medical Center and dean of the School of Medicine. “Wearing a mask, keeping surfaces sanitized, socially distancing and proper, frequent hand hygiene are all proven to be effective ways to curb virus spread and should continue to be a part of our daily lives until active transmission is no longer a concern.”

Advice from health officials continues to evolve as more is learned about this strain of the coronavirus.

Officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now say “there is evidence that under certain conditions, people with COVID-19 seem to have infected others who were more than 6 feet away.”

Fox, the former head of public health in Alabama, said with Mississippi suffering such high rates for high-risk factors for COVID-19 (diabetes, hypertension and obesity), requiring masks should be a no-brainer.

“This is a deadly disease, and it’s very indiscriminate,” Fox said. “Some will hardly suffer from it; for others, it’s going to kill them.”

Wearing a mask “has gotten politicized, which is unfortunate,” he said. “We take vaccinations, not just to protect ourselves, but to protect others. You shouldn’t have the right to endanger the lives of other people.”

Jerry Mitchell is an investigative reporter for the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit news organization that is exposing wrongdoing, educating and empowering Mississippians, and raising up the next generation of investigative reporters.