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Democratic governors are trying to move on from a pandemic that’s still happening

New policies unveiled this week are clashing with public health guidance.

A sign beside a library door reads “Mask required at all times.”
Masked library patrons leave a New York Public Library in New York City on February 10. New York Gov. Kathy Hochul announced the end of the New York state indoor mask mandate effective February 10, but masks will still be required at schools, nursing homes, hospitals, and in bus and train stations.
Lokman Vural Elibol/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

As an exhausted nation continues to grapple with the coronavirus, Democrats are facing growing public pressure to move on to the pandemic’s next phase even as high case rates, hospitalizations, and death rates persist.

This week, several Democratic governors responded by rolling back their state’s mask mandates.

Leaders in New Jersey, Connecticut, Delaware, and Oregon announced changes to such policies in schools, while those in New York, Illinois, Nevada, and California did the same for indoor mask requirements.

“This is a huge step back to normalcy for our kids,” New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy said on Monday.

Such decisions come as many Americans eye a new stage of the pandemic. According to a January 20-24 Monmouth University poll, 70 percent of Americans think it’s time to accept that “Covid is here to stay and that we need to get on with our lives,” including 47 percent of Democrats, 71 percent of independents, and 89 percent of Republicans. Democrats have also weathered months of critiques from Republicans who’ve sought to frame them as the party of lockdowns, and questioned the need to mask children in schools.

Governors’ decisions this week, however, clashed with public health guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the White House.

“Now is not the moment” to drop mask requirements, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention chief Rochelle Walensky said in a Reuters interview this week.

The CDC still recommends masking in schools and in indoor spaces in jurisdictions with “high” or “substantial” rates of transmission. According to an NBC News analysis published on February 8, 99 percent of counties in the US would qualify by that measure.

Several of the state mask mandate changes won’t take place for weeks, and new reported cases and hospitalizations are declining nationwide. For now, it’s still unclear what the situation will be when the mandates eventually lift.

These policy changes have prompted mixed reviews from public health experts.

“I think this is a matter of political expediency, not a public health response,” John Hopkins University infectious disease epidemiologist David Celentano said of the recent moves to relax masking. “New Jersey was a ‘hot spot’ until recently; not sure they are wise to drop masking, at least for older kids.”

Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, noted that the decision to rescind school mask mandates in Pennsylvania has had “no major consequences.” An ABC News report has found that Covid-19 transmissions have increased in places like a Wyoming school district that recently rolled back school mask requirements, an outcome likely due to low vaccination rates among children.

The public has been divided about such policies as well. A February Axios/Ipsos poll found that just 21 percent of people support getting rid of all Covid-19 restrictions, 29 percent want to move toward opening up with “precautions,” 23 percent want leaders to mostly keep existing precautions in place, and 21 percent want more vaccine and mask requirements.

The masking rollbacks are one way Democrats are trying to navigate this confusion. And they reflect how the party is acknowledging pressure from those who want to decide for themselves how to deal with the pandemic. The new policies come despite the fact that loosening restrictions at a time with such high case rates could spur new transmissions, and could make it tougher to reinstate mandates if there were another surge. For example, in 2021, more than 20 states allowed their mask policies to expire. When the omicron variant hit this past winter, just a fraction of those states brought their mask mandates back.

“The challenge that any politician and any scientist has to grapple with is there are no 100 percent sure answers,” says Kaiser Family Foundation director of global health policy Jennifer Kates. “Do you act more cautious and risk people being angry that you’re not supporting more of a new normal or do you throw caution to the wind and risk having a setback?”

There’s still a lot of uncertainty about the pandemic

Unlike governors, the Biden administration has stopped short of indicating a shift to a new stage of the pandemic response — and instead focused on the progress made so far.

“We’ve got a way to go on that, in my view, but we’re moving,” President Joe Biden said during a January meeting with state governors, when some urged him to “move away from the pandemic.”

Part of this caution likely stems from the blowback the White House faced last year, when Biden said the country was “closer than ever to declaring our independence from a deadly virus” in a July Fourth speech, only to have delta variant cases surge in the months afterward.

“They are continuing to evaluate and there’s ongoing discussions and work happening internally,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said at a recent press conference.

There have been major strides in the US’s pandemic response since January 2021: More than 200 million people are now fully vaccinated, the unemployment rate has gone down, and the overwhelming majority of schools are now open. Covid-19 cases are also down from the omicron peak: As of Thursday, the average number of daily cases has dipped 65 percent compared to two weeks ago, according to the New York Times tracker.

Still, according to Thursday’s data, the average number of daily cases — 205,004 — remains at 82 percent of the level seen in January 2021, and is significantly higher than the peak of 164,418 average daily cases during the Delta wave. And even though the impact of the omicron variant is waning, hospitalizations and death rates are still high as well.

As of Thursday, an average of 103,455 people have been hospitalized in the US per day, or 31 hospitalizations per day for every 100,000 people, according to the New York Times tracker. That average is comparable with the roughly 104,000 people who were hospitalized with Covid-19 at the peak of the delta wave.

In states that have recently changed policies, hospitalizations have stayed high as well. For example, New Jersey is seeing 23 hospitalizations per day per 100,000 people, Delaware is seeing 32 hospitalizations per day per 100,00 people, and New York is seeing 29 hospitalizations per day per 100,000 people.

Thursday’s national death average of 2,575 people per day is higher than it was during the delta surge as well, when there was an average of 2,000 people dying per day.

“It is troubling because it feels like this rush to ‘normal’ outweighs more preventable illness [and] death as well as is really tone-deaf to the reality that literally for millions of people across the country — there is no normal for them,” says Kristen Urquiza, the founder of Marked by Covid, a nonprofit that advocates on behalf of people who’ve lost loved ones to coronavirus.

State leaders have called for the CDC to offer more clarity about what metrics they should be looking for to determine which policies to roll back and when — but thus far, they have been left to make this decision on their own.

In that vacuum, Kates said that these decisions were likely a byproduct of both public health information and politics. “Politics is a factor here: people are tired of restrictions and governors are listening to that,” Kates told Vox.

Governors are pushing for a return to normalcy

Ahead of midterms in which Democrats are already facing headwinds, “Democrats can’t be the party of mandates,” says progressive strategist Rebecca Katz, the founder of New Deal Strategies.

Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-NY), the head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, House Democrats’ campaign arm, has signaled he’s also of this school of thought. He’s among those emphasizing the need for the party to “start getting back to normal.”

Governors’ actions this week in several states including New Jersey, Delaware, and Connecticut seem to echo this viewpoint, though they’ve pushed back against suggestions that these changes were driven by political pressure.

“It’s a combination of cases, hospitalizations, positivity rates, rates of transmission all going dramatically in the right direction,” Murphy said this week.

There’s some evidence to indicate that Democrats have borne a political cost for previous Covid-19 policies, which have included school closures, though it’s far from conclusive. Masking children in schools has also become a political flashpoint in recent months.

After the Virginia gubernatorial election last year, data gathered from an 18-person focus group by Democratic strategist Brian Stryker suggested that Republicans were able to brand Democrats as the ones behind unpopular restrictive policies, including school lockdowns, and win an edge with certain voters as a result. “They felt Democrats closed their schools and didn’t feel bad about it,” Stryker’s memo reads.

A recent New Republic article by Rachel Cohen, however, noted that these policies didn’t necessarily doom Democrats, citing polling showing a majority of parents were satisfied with how their children’s schools handled the pandemic. A Hart Research Associates and Lake Research Partners survey conducted in December found that 78 percent of parents were satisfied with how their school handled the pandemic and 83 percent supported efforts the school had implemented to keep students safe. (Biden has previously been a client of Lake Research Partners.)

The January Monmouth survey saw that state mask mandates and social distancing guidance still have 52 percent of people’s support, a decline from 63 percent in September. Support for mandates was divided along party lines, with 85 percent of Democrats backing these policies, 51 percent of independents, and 24 percent of Republicans.

Still, the pushback that’s accompanied policies including school closures and mask mandates is likely a factor for Democratic leaders hoping to advance a different message in the midterms.

“The majority of the public supports mask mandates in the US and a supermajority of Democratic voters support mask mandates,” says Harvard social epidemiologist Justin Michael Feldman. “They’re not going after mainstream Democrats, they’re targeting swing voters.”

Some Democrats who recently announced changes to Covid-19 restrictions, or who have previously declined to reinstate mask mandates, are up for election this fall, including California Gov. Gavin Newsom, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak, and New York Gov. Kathy Hochul.

Beyond moving away from mask mandates, Democrats are focused on a drawing a contrast with Republican leaders — including pointing to failures of GOP lawmakers to back Covid-19 relief policies and the misinformation that Republicans leaders have spread about the pandemic.

“We really are going to talk about when Republicans were in charge, they failed to crack down on the coronavirus. They unanimously opposed Democrats’ coronavirus programs that helped people get back to work, [kids] get back to school,” said DSCC spokesperson Jazmin Vargas. “Overall, it’s going to be about how we took steps to take on the coronavirus. We can effectively call out Republicans for opposing us every step of the way.”

In a study on messaging strategies, the left-leaning firm Data for Progress found “that focusing on Democratic achievements to recover from the pandemic is an effective strategy to counter Republican attacks on government interference.”

Many Republican leaders have been criticized by public health experts for lies they’ve spread about vaccines and failures to adequately promote masks and testing. But the challenge Democrats face while calling out Republicans is that Democrats are currently the party in power in the White House and Congress, and in the 16 states where Democratic governors are up for reelection.

As a result, Democrats are likely to bear any blame for continuing struggles in places where they’re in charge. That’s one reason for the growing Democratic interest in promoting an idea of “normalcy” as part of a counter to GOP critiques and public pressureeven as the pandemic is still very much happening.

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