July 21, 2020 / 3:50 PM / 14 days ago

In U.S. South, governors clash with local leaders on masks, stay-at-home orders

ATLANTA, July 21 (Reuters) - The governors of Texas, Florida and Georgia, where COVID-19 is raging, pushed back hard on Tuesday against local leaders who want to impose tighter restrictions to control the runaway spread of the coronavirus in their areas.

In Texas, Governor Greg Abbott overruled a county that wants residents to stay home, saying existing measures on wearing masks and social distancing were enough to keep businesses in the Rio Grande Valley on the border with Mexico from having to shut down.

In Georgia, Governor Brian Kemp squared off against the mayor of his largest city to stop Atlanta from enforcing a mandate that people wear face coverings in public. A court hearing on a mask lawsuit filed by the governor against Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms personally was postponed on Tuesday after the judge recused herself at the last minute.

In Florida, a teachers union is suing the state and Governor Ron DeSantis to halt his ordered full reopening of classrooms in a few weeks. The state has reported over 10,000 daily new coronavirus cases for six out of the last seven days.

On average last week, 19% of COVID-19 tests came back positive, indicating widespread community transmission in Florida.

Neither Florida nor Georgia have issued statewide mask mandates. Texas’ Abbott initially resisted requiring masks but earlier this month agreed to mandate them in most counties.

Mandatory mask wearing, seen by health officials as a relatively easy way to slow the virus spread, has become a hot button political issue among Americans, with many conservatives calling such rules a violation of their Constitutional rights.

The clashes between local leaders and their governors comes as coronavirus deaths nationally rise for a second consecutive week and cases climb for a seventh week in a row.

At least 16 states have reported record levels of currently hospitalized COVID-19 patients in July, and cases have set single-day records in 32 states this month, according to a Reuters tally.

Florida and Georgia had record hospitalizations on Monday and Texas had a record of over 10,600 hospitalized coronavirus patients on Saturday.

Some Texas counties are ordering coolers and refrigerated trucks to store bodies as their morgues fill - an alarming sight that was common in New York City at the height of the epidemic there earlier this year.

(Open tmsnrt.rs/2WTOZDR in an external browser for a Reuters interactive)

Reporting by Rich McKay; Additional reporting by Maria Caspani in New York and Daniel Trotta; Writing by Lisa Shumaker; Editing by Bill Berkrot

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