Analysis: Tate Reeves says his COVID-19 response not politically driven

Published 9:29 pm Sunday, August 22, 2021

Mississippi Republican Gov. Tate Reeves stared into cameras during a news conference and said he is not advancing any political agenda in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic as the state experiences a sharp rise in new cases and hospitalizations.

“There are those on the right who would like me to make masks and vaccines into a political battle,” Reeves said Thursday at the Sillers state office building. “There are those on the left, including most of the reporters in this room, who really want to make political hay and grow their Twitter platform because I will not issue mandate after mandate after mandate.

“Let me be clear,” he said. “I do not give a damn about any political agenda.”

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Reeves was speaking to about a dozen reporters and photographers in the room, at least that many journalists on a video conference and an audience of thousands watching on a Facebook livestream.

The governor made his declaration about not promoting any political agenda only three weeks after he stood in front of a conservative audience at the Neshoba County Fair and used us-versus-them rhetoric to criticize the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for changing its guidance on masking.

Reeves spoke at the fair July 29, two days after the CDC reversed course and said that even people vaccinated against COVID-19 should wear masks indoors — a decision announced as the highly contagious delta variant of the virus was spreading. Reeves called the CDC decision “foolish.”

“It reeks of political panic so as to appear they are in control,” Reeves said of the CDC during his speech to an outdoor audience, emphasizing “they.”

“It has nothing — let me say that again — it has nothing to do with rational science,” Reeves said. “In Mississippi, we believe in freedom.”

According to WJTV-TV, Reeves told reporters after his speech at the fair: “I don’t think you’re going to see any school district mandate masks in schools. I think if you start seeing them do that, the parents will erupt, and they should.”

That pushback against school mask mandates has happened since then, including at school board meetings in Tupelo and Rankin County.

Since late July, Mississippi has jumped to the top of a list that makes public health officials cringe. Last week, Mississippi passed Louisiana to become the state with the highest per-capita rate of new COVID-19 cases in the United States, according to the Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 case tracker.

Reeves has made clear, repeatedly, that he will not issue statewide mask mandates for schools. He said school districts can make their own decisions about setting mask mandates or requiring social distancing to try to mitigate the spread of the airborne virus.

“This pandemic — much of which is a pandemic of the unvaccinated, at this time — is before us,” Reeves said Thursday. “There will be plenty of time for politics, but this ain’t it. My objective is to give Mississippians the facts, give them and their local officials the tools they need to make good decisions and then trust them to love each other enough to do it.”

Mississippi has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the United States.

Reeves said that as of Thursday, about 1.1 million of Mississippi’s nearly 3 million residents were fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Almost 41,000 vaccine doses were administered in Mississippi during the three days before the news conference, he said, and 71,135 doses were administered during the previous week. That was the highest total for any week since April and a 256% increase over Mississippi’s lowest week in early July.

The governor was vaccinated on camera early this year.

“Getting the vaccine is your choice. It is your decision,” Reeves said Thursday. “And as your governor, I will always defend your right to make that decision, and I will respect your decision.”

He said he hopes unvaccinated people will talk to their doctors and study statistics.

“I believe you as an individual Mississippian can be trusted to make good and responsible decisions,” Reeves said. “Good practices are a choice. Staying healthy is a choice. Keeping your neighbors and your coworkers healthy is a choice. Now, let’s all make the right choices.”

Emily Wagster Pettus has covered Mississippi government and politics since 1994.