It’s no longer just Republican governors like Florida’s Ron DeSantis who are pushing the Biden White House to relax COVID recommendations, but Democratic governors, too.
In quick fashion, three Democratic governors of deeply blue northeastern states — Connecticut, New Jersey, and Delaware — announced this week they were moving to lift mandates that masks be worn inside public schools.
At the same time, the Democratic governor in Oregon has announced his state, too, is lifting the indoor mask mandate meant to curb the spread of COVID, including in schools. California may change its school masking rules as soon as next week.
Many were watching what New York Governor Kathy Hochul would announce given the other states in the so-called tri-state region had lifted indoor mask mandates. As expected, she dropped the state’s broad mask requirements Wednesday, but they will still be required in schools.
While these are governors who have long preached the idea that policymakers should “follow the science” on the pandemic, many of them are also “following the number” of cases.
In recent weeks, data show that the Omicron variant of COVID is receding nearly as quickly as it arrived to disrupt American life. All of this is shaping up as a political situation that could be nearly untenable for the White House: where nearly every state is making rules that run counter to the administration’s guidance. One could see how the White House may change course to get ahead of that scenario.
The reality on the ground, of course, also has collided with public sentiment about COVID. Polling from Monmouth University showed that many Americans believe that COVID will simply always be around and they are looking for ways to begin living in a new normal. Biden also said as much recently off the cuff to reporters. At the same time, the federal government’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has not changed its guidance, which recommends individuals wear masks indoors in areas of “substantial” or “high” transmission.
It’s important to note three things as they relate to the latest move from these Democratic governors, and likely others that will follow their lead.
First, the pandemic is not over and no governor is declaring that to be the case. Many of them can look to Biden’s premature victory lap around the July Fourth holiday as proof there is a political price for predicting an unpredictable viral disease.
Second, while many governors are lifting their statewide mandates, local communities can make their own decisions. Newark Public Schools in New Jersey, for example, announced it will keep the mask mandate in place.
Third, Republican governors have actually taken the opposite approach. Often, as is the case in Florida, the state government has prevented local communities from deciding for themselves whether to require masks in certain settings.
While it remains unclear what exactly the White House will say or do next, it is notable that, like during the Trump administration, it is governors, not presidents, who are leading on the politics of COVID and what should actually be policy.
That said, this does appear to be a moment when COVID politics are changing nationally. It can always change when the next major variant comes around, but Democrats, especially those worried about the midterms, might be looking for opportunities to mark some progress on COVID, at least while case counts are down.
James Pindell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell and on Instagram @jameswpindell.