Washington (AFP) – The United States’ COVID-19 virus case load is soaring at an explosive rate, even as leaders of some of the worst-hit states resist mandatory mask measures to stem the spread.

Health authorities reported more than 77,600 new cases on Friday, according to the Johns Hopkins University database.

The number of patients hospitalized for the virus is at its highest level since April 23, according to The COVID Tracking Project.

The death rate, which plummeted in May and June, has been rising since last week. Florida, the new epicenter, posted more than 11,000 new cases and 128 deaths on Friday.

Coronavirus is meanwhile spreading to new parts of the country including Idaho, Tennessee and Mississippi.

But New York, the original US epicenter where more than 32,000 virus patients have died, moved to further ease its restrictions after bringing its outbreak under control.

Mayor Bill de Blasio said Friday that zoos and botanical gardens could open with limited capacity, as could baseball games, without spectators.

– Trump briefings –

President Donald Trump’s ratings have plummeted since the start of the pandemic.

Only 38 percent of Americans approve of his handling of the crisis, against 51 percent in March, according to a Washington Post poll published Friday.

Trump aide Kellyanne Conway said Friday the decline is explained because the president has stopped giving daily briefings on the virus.

“The president’s numbers were much higher when he was out there briefing everybody on a day-by-day basis about the coronavirus,” she said, adding: “I think the president should be doing that.”

The task force briefings featuring Trump were halted in late April amid mounting criticism over his exaggerated and inaccurate claims about the public health response and his penchant for pushing bogus treatments.

“We’ve really got to regroup, call a time-out,” Anthony Fauci, the top US infectious disease specialist, told Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg in a video chat Thursday.

“Not necessarily lock down again, but say, ‘We’ve got to do this in a more measured way,'” he added.

– ‘Do not be a sheep’ –

States enacted lockdowns in patchwork fashion, and several skipped important epidemiological checkpoints before easing stay-at-home orders, said Fauci.

Subsequently, many have been forced to close bars that had just recently reopened, but also sometimes shut down gyms, movie theaters, places of worship and shops.

Some mayors have imposed mandatory mask orders. But in Georgia, the state’s Republican governor Brian Kemp sued Atlanta’s mayor for issuing a face covering directive.

“While we all agree wearing a mask is effective, I am confident Georgians do not need a mandate to do the right thing,” Kemp said.

His lawsuit seeks to overturn not just the mask order but Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ return to a stricter lockdown.

Bottoms, a Democrat who has herself tested positive for coronavirus, believes Kemp’s decision was political retaliation, telling CNN the suit came one day after Trump visited Atlanta when she pointed out he was breaking the law by being maskless at the airport.

Similar conflicts abound elsewhere.

In Texas, which notched a record 174 coronavirus deaths on Friday, Governor Greg Abbott has ordered a statewide mask order after seeing cases surge, but he has been condemned through censure resolutions passed by multiple local Republican officials.

They accuse him of violating the party’s principles of separation of powers, free enterprise and personal responsibility, according to The Texas Tribune.

The Democratic mayor of Houston, the state’s largest city, wants to move back into lockdown — a moved refused by the governor.

Authorities in Texas cities such as San Antonio and Corpus Christi, as well as in Maricopa County, Arizona, are ordering freezer trucks and trailers for bodies as they brace for the worst.

Many sheriffs — who are often elected officials — in California, North Carolina and elsewhere have said they won’t enforce mask regulations in their counties.

“Do not be a sheep,” a sheriff in Washington state said in late June. The US epidemic began in the western state and cases there have started to pick up once again.

Meanwhile in California most public and private schools will not physically reopen when the academic year begins under statewide rules announced Friday by Governor Gavin Newsom.

Only those in counties that have been off the state’s monitoring list for at least 14 days will be allowed to open their doors — as of Friday 32 out of 58 counties were on the list, areas that include many of the state’s largest school districts.