JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — To the issues creating a partisan divide in state legislatures across the U.S., add this one: masks.

Many Democratic lawmakers are wearing them amid the coronavirus outbreak while many Republicans refuse.

“Public health has become partisan,” bemoaned South Carolina state Rep. Kambrell Garvin, a Democrat who recently became ill from COVID-19.

As legislatures around the country resume work following coronavirus suspensions, Democrats and Republicans also have split over social distancing, remote voting and the extension of emergency powers for governors who had ordered businesses to close and residents to remain home.

Lawmakers have become ill from the coronavirus in nearly half the states, with Democrats accounting for about two-thirds of the 40 confirmed COVID-19 cases, according to an Associated Press tally. Three lawmakers died of the virus — a Michigan Democrat in late March and Republicans in Louisiana and South Dakota in early April. 

Partisan divisions appear to have grown since then, particularly in the South and Midwest, as some Republicans pushed to reopen the economy faster than some Democrats. 

While there have been bipartisan exceptions, mask-wearing divisions among Democrats and Republicans have been evident during recent legislative sessions in Arizona, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Tennessee. 

In Illinois, Republican Rep. Darren Bailey was removed from a convention center functioning as the House floor last month for refusing to wear a mask. His ejection came just moments after the Democratic-led chamber approved a mask mandate with support from some Republicans in a move Bailey considered “a show.”

“The mask is not about health. It’s about more bureaucracy and more government control, of which the liberal Democrat thrives on,” Bailey told the AP. 

When Pennsylvania Republican Rep. Andrew Lewis announced through a news release that he had self-isolated and recovered from COVID-19, Democratic colleagues expressed outrage that his diagnosis had been kept secret from them for a week. Democrats demanded changes requiring lawmakers to wear masks in the Republican-controlled legislature, but GOP legislative leaders have not acted on the request. 

In Ohio, a Democratic proposal to require masks at House sessions and committee meetings was defeated on a party-line vote last month in the Republican-led chamber. A Republican lawmaker then filed legislation to bar mask requirements statewide unless approved by two-thirds of lawmakers. That measure is pending. 

Some trace the partisan divergence on coronavirus precautions to the very top of American politics. Republican President Donald Trump hasn’t publicly worn masks, not even while announcing federal recommendations that Americans wear face coverings in public to help fight the spread of the virus.

“I think that when our president, from a national standpoint, signals that masks aren’t politically expedient, then I think that trickles down to the local and state level,” said Garvin, the South Carolina Democrat who has worn masks both before and after his coronavirus illness. 

Several recent studies using polling and smartphone GPS data have shown that Democrats are more apt than Republicans to embrace social distancing in public, wear masks and stay at home because of the coronavirus. 

Virus precautions have started to become an ideological means of group identification, similar to partisan divisions over abortion or other hot-button issues, said psychology professor Hank Rothgerber of Bellarmine University in Louisville, Kentucky.

“Democrats now have identified themselves as the party that’s taking this more seriously and is more concerned about public health,” Rothgerber said, “and Republicans are identifying themselves as a party that is focused on opening the economy back up and not overreacting to this crisis.”

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