The timing seemed strange for Attorney General Jeff Landry to challenge Louisiana’s recently enacted mask mandate for the coronavirus outbreak, while he was in quarantine with the virus himself and only a day after the Trump administration supported the face covering requirement.
That might be why the Republican attorney general’s opinion was worded to object to Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards' mandate without arguing about the health benefits of the mask itself or the public safety risks of the COVID-19 disease caused by the novel coronavirus.
Writing from his coronavirus isolation location, Landry said Edwards' executive order requiring anyone aged 8 or older to wear face coverings, limiting bars to takeout and delivery and banning gatherings of more than 50 people in indoor spaces is “likely unconstitutional and unenforceable.”
But he started his analysis by writing: “Let me begin by first emphasizing that this guidance in no form should be taken to discredit or reduce the significance of any protections taken by an individual, including the wearing of a face mask for the purpose of preventing infection from COVID-19.” On Twitter, Landry stressed that he was not discouraging masks, “only a mandate.”
It's not clear, however, how much people will notice the nuance in the increasingly politicized mask fights of the coronavirus pandemic.
While scientists in the early days of the outbreak were divided on the benefits of mask wearing, health officials are largely consistent now in recommending face coverings as a precaution against spreading and infecting others with the coronavirus. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention encourages the wearing of masks, saying they will help protect the people around the mask-wearer.
Still, masks have become a national flashpoint, with people arguing community responsibility clashing with those arguing individual freedom. Republicans appear more resistant to wearing them than Democrats. President Donald Trump recently wore a mask in public, but he doesn't wear them with regularity.
But while Trump may eschew the guidance of his own advisers and health experts, his administration couldn't have been clearer during its Tuesday visit to Louisiana.
“The governor is correct. It will take everyone in Louisiana, every single person in Louisiana, to wear a mask,” Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus coordinator, said in LSU's Tiger Stadium with Edwards and members of the congressional delegation, all of whom were wearing masks.
During the visit, Vice President Mike Pence said: “We support Gov. John Bel Edwards and his health officials’ decisions, and we encourage people to heed the guidance of state and local authorities. And with regard to wearing a mask, it’s just always a good idea.”
Edwards initially resisted a statewide mask order, preferring to call for individual responsibility. He changed his mind as Louisiana’s coronavirus caseload continued to surge. For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms. But for some, especially older adults and those with existing health problems, it can cause more severe or fatal illness.
Louisiana is averaging more than 2,000 new confirmed infections a day over the last week and again has one of the fastest growing infection rates per capita across the nation. Hospitalization numbers are spiking, and the percentage of coronavirus tests returning positive has alarmed health experts, including in the Trump administration.
While Landry was telling the public Edwards' mask order appeared to be illegal, the White House was encouraging Louisiana and several other states to go much further in locking down activity that could spread the coronavirus.
A White House document sent to governors — first reported by the Center for Public Integrity and also released by Edwards — recommended not only that Louisiana enact a mask mandate and close bars, but also that the state shutter gyms and further restrict indoor dining at restaurants beyond what the governor has done.
More than half of states have mask mandates, including Louisiana's neighbors of Arkansas and Texas.
The legal opinion issued by Landry, whose office requires employees to wear a facial covering in public areas, doesn’t carry the force of law, though it could be used to try to undermine Edwards’ mandate by bolstering a lawsuit or just raising enforcement questions.
Already some lawmakers, attorneys and businesses are trying to use the governor's exception for people with medical conditions as a loophole for people to refuse to wear a mask and for businesses to allow people in without one.
Melinda Deslatte has covered Louisiana politics for The Associated Press since 2000.