As horrible as the beginning of the pandemic was a year ago, most governors saw their political fortunes rise. They were the stars of must-see-TV press conferences. They could swiftly act and wield power without even consulting the legislature. And the very high-profile decisions they were making weren’t even that hard. All they had to do was “follow the science” and tell their constituents that, hey, I am sorry I have to put our state on lockdown, but that is what the scientific experts say we need to do.
All-powerful, quoted everywhere, no blame.
And this system worked. Approval ratings for governors around the country surged.
But one year into the pandemic, governors have changed their approach. They are increasingly following politics, not science. And there has been a subplot to all the reopening in recent weeks: The governors in the most political peril are the ones most aggressively reopening their economies.
In other words, reopening restaurants, concert halls, and lifting mask mandates is less about COVID and more about increasing poll numbers.
And it’s a bipartisan feeling.
Texas’s Governor Greg Abbott, a Republican, is undergoing the biggest criticism of his tenure following a winter storm that left millions without power or water because leaders like him didn’t winterize the power grid. His response? Be the first state in the country to lift its mask mandate, along with every other COVID-19 restriction.
Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer has been making headlines for a scandal involving a severance payment for the state’s former health chief that some have called “hush money.” Whitmer’s next move? You guessed it.
And, of course, there is Massachusetts, where Charlie Baker went from the least criticized governor in the land to being forced to testify in front of legislators over a rocky vaccine rollout. On the day of the hearing, Baker announced he would lift some restrictions on restaurants and even allow the Red Sox to have fans on Opening Day should COVID-19 numbers continue to improve. (They may not.)
To be clear, while COVID case counts have declined and plateaued, the nation’s top scientists are very much against relaxing restrictions. It’s too early for this, they say. And the variants could come on quickly.
Even President Biden is getting in on the act, suggesting that lifting mask restrictions like Abbott did in Texas was “Neanderthal thinking.”
That brought this response from Tennessee Senator Marsha Blackburn: “Neanderthals are hunter-gatherers, they’re protectors of their family, they are resilient, they’re resourceful, they tend to their own,” she said. “So I think Joe Biden needs to rethink what he is saying.”
(Quick fact check: Neanderthals are also extinct.)
But one thing that Blackburn’s comment made clear: reopening is now a political thing and not a science thing.
After all, Texas has some of the highest rates of COVID cases in the US right now.
Bad timing for fighting the virus. But good timing for politics.