Dropping Mask Mandates, Democratic Governors Bow to Political Reality

4 minute read

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The closer you can get to people in power, the more likely you are to get the results you want. Sure, it’s fun to write to the President about an urgent matter in your life, but it would be far more likely to make a difference if you stopped by city hall. It’s easy for officials to ignore a form in a federal database but it’s not as sustainable to ignore the resident who wants her two minutes during the city council’s public-comment window.

This dynamic is part of the rapid pivot Democratic Governors from New Jersey to California are making to shed mask mandates in their states. In short: we’re all tired of the face coverings, the post-holiday Omicron surge seems to be retreating and vaccines are widely available. And, as Delaware’s Democratic Governor, John Carney, said last week, “A leader without followers is not very effective leadership, so somehow you have to strike the balance there to keep people following you.”

It’s not that the pandemic is over. It’s very much not. The number of new cases is still topping 200,000 people daily, surpassing the Delta summer surge handily and coming close to the spike seen after the 2020 holidays. But as workers and students alike settled back into routines this new year, patience for precaution seems to be wearing thin. In fact, as one analysis suggests, a desire to return to normal has overtaken concerns about the pandemic in polls.

“This is not a declaration of victory as much as an acknowledgment that we can responsibly live with this thing,” New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy said in announcing his state’s end to school mask mandates.

Having some increased distance from fed-up voters has allowed Washington to hold onto its fact-based belief that masks work and are still needed. During her briefing with reporters on Wednesday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki got the question over and over again as to why the White House and Democratic-led states were going their separate ways—to which she said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was clear that folks in high-transmission areas should continue to mask-up. And, to be clear, almost everywhere remains a high-transmission area.

Closer to the ground, that’s a tough pill to swallow. Republicans—especially Donald Trump—made the pandemic a useful political cudgel. The response to the deadly COVID-19 sweep manifested itself into a piece of the culture wars: good for politics and lousy for policy. Parents’ frustrations helped Republicans to elect a Governor in the assumedly blue state of Virginia last year and, this week, 10 of the 21 Democrats in the state Senate in Richmond joined Republicans in banning local school boards from mandating masks.

When the nation’s Governors met in Washington in recent weeks, talk constantly returned to what prudently could be done to “move away from the pandemic.”

The unanswered question is how long D.C. will be able to ignore what is clearly a political loser for sustained deployment of masks. Support for masking dropped among all Americans from 63% in September to a bare majority—52%—in last month’s Monmouth University poll. Vaccine mandates fell from 53% support to 42% during the same window. And a staggering 70% of respondents told the pollsters they agreed with the statement that “it’s time we accept Covid is here to stay and we just need to get on with our lives.”

Sadly for those of us ready to return to some form of the Before Times, that’s not how science works. No one, no matter how stubborn, can will a pandemic away. Only 55% of students between the ages of 12 and 17 have been fully vaccinated, meaning classrooms remain prime places for the spread. And among those ages 5 to 11, the number falls to 23%.

But politics isn’t as beholden to facts. And with Democrats already in a tough environment heading into this fall’s elections, Democratic Governors may be playing early defense for a party that is bracing for trouble. Those Governors may have a better feeling for the public frustration in their states than anyone in the Beltway. Washington may have the best grip on science but the state leaders probably have a pretty solid idea of what voters will accept and how thin their patience can become.

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Write to Philip Elliott at philip.elliott@time.com