the pandemic

The Democratic Party’s ‘Mask Off’ Moment

Photo: Timothy A. Clary/AFP via Getty Images

The American people are sick of the pandemic and the public-health mandates. Unable to end the former, Democrats are now moving to roll back the latter.

In a recent Kaiser Family Foundation survey, 75 percent of adults declared themselves “tired” of the pandemic, while nearly as many described themselves as “frustrated” by it. Meanwhile, just 13 percent of Americans in an Axios-Ipsos poll said they expect to get back to their pre-COVID-19 lives within the next six months. This pessimism partly reflects a resilient fear of COVID with 56 percent of voters telling Axios that returning to pre-pandemic normality would involve taking a “large” or “moderate” risk. Perhaps for this reason, only 21 percent of the poll’s respondents voiced support for returning to normal life with no coronavirus mandates or requirements whatsoever.

And yet recent polls indicate that the public favors fewer mandates and is inclined to sympathize with the notion that this mass-death event is now just a fact of life. Some 70 percent of Americans agreed with the statement “It’s time we accept that Covid is here to stay and we just need to get on with our lives” in a recent Monmouth University survey. In that same poll, support for vaccine mandates dropped from 53 to 43 percent since September, while backing for masking and social-distancing guidelines slipped from 63 to 52 percent. Asked in a Yahoo News–YouGov poll whether Americans should “learn to live” with the pandemic and “get back to normal” or “do more to vaccinate, wear masks and test,” respondents favored the first by a 46-to-43-percent margin. Americans’ actions as consumers are broadly consistent with their poll responses. Judging by last week’s jobs report, the Omicron variant did less to deter economic activity than many observers had feared. Restaurant bookings on the reservations app OpenTable have nearly returned to precrisis levels.

If the public’s attitude toward public-health restrictions is ambivalent, its feelings about the Democratic president are less so. Americans disapprove of Joe Biden by a margin of 52.6 to 41.3 percent in FiveThirtyEight’s aggregation of polls. In recent weeks, for the first time since Biden took office, more voters disapproved than approved of the president’s handling of the coronavirus crisis specifically.

Elected Democrats have paid close attention to these developments. After surviving an unexpectedly strong Republican challenge in November’s election, New Jersey governor Phil Murphy arranged focus groups across the Garden State to identify the sources of his constituents’ discontent. According to the New York Times, Murphy’s advisers found broad frustration over public-health measures. The Omicron wave forced Murphy to table any consideration of easing pandemic restrictions. As COVID cases plummeted in recent weeks, Murphy and like-minded blue-state governors began discussing the lifting of mandates. Last week, they implored Biden to provide updated guidelines enabling states to move off a crisis footing without running afoul of CDC recommendations. The administration did not immediately grant this request.

On Monday, Murphy moved anyway, announcing that New Jersey will no longer require students and school employees to wear masks. That kicked off an avalanche of blue-state mandate liberalizations as the Democratic governors of California, Connecticut, Delaware, Oregon, and New York moved to ease public-health restrictions. In the Empire State, businesses will no longer need to ask customers to mask if they lack proof of vaccination unless municipal regulations require it. That mandate was set to expire Thursday, and maintaining it would require Governor Kathy Hochul to formally extend it. For now, New York City is keeping its strict vaccine mandate in place.

There are substantive arguments for a pivot toward normalization. The case for a libertarian, “live and let die” approach to the pandemic is easier to make in February 2022 than it was in March 2020. Today, virtually all American adults can safely access free vaccines that will render them 97 times less likely to die from COVID. Meanwhile, research suggests that wearing a respirator mask such as an N95 can protect an individual from infection even when in an unmasked crowd. There is also some evidence that constant masking in schools may impair child development by inhibiting the acquisition of face-reading skills. Given the potential for public-health restrictions to introduce countervailing harms — and the power that almost all adults have to protect themselves from high personal risk of death from COVID-19 — it’s time to let individuals make their own choices, the argument goes.

This libertarian reasoning can be buttressed by an appeal to futility. After all, the populations most vulnerable to COVID-19 are also those least likely to abide by state guidelines or to live in areas where they are robustly enforced. Meanwhile, Omicron is among the most contagious diseases in human history, and neither state-of-the-art vaccines nor half-hearted, hypocritically applied mask mandates can do that much to stop transmission. Fortunately, the Omicron wave has crested; new COVID cases in the U.S. are down roughly 70 percent from the mid-January peak. Soon deaths will follow. Spring is coming.

Personally, I don’t find the libertarian case all that compelling. I think the state should coerce people into availing themselves of vaccines that drastically lower their risk of dying not only for their own sake but also because there is a public interest in preserving scarce medical capacity and averting mass death. So I’m not crazy about relaxing vaccine mandates even if they no longer do a great job of reducing transmission. More broadly, there is a great deal more that Democratic policy-makers could be doing to reconcile the competing goods of safety and normalcy. Massive public investment in better air-filtration systems could reduce the risks of unmasking school children. The campaign to vaccinate the globe remains woefully underfunded, a reality that makes the emergence of new variants more likely. And even after two years of mass death and social discontent, Congress is still refusing to allocate more than a pittance in funding for preventive measures against future pandemics.

At the same time, it does seem like some public-health measures should be liberalized in light of countervailing harms. For example, Social Security offices remain closed to walk-in visitors even as many vulnerable populations rely on such public institutions for vital services.

But Democratic officeholders don’t care very much about what I think. They’re worried about the whims of the median voter. Considering the uncertain efficacy of statewide public-health restrictions that are routinely flouted in undervaccinated areas — as well as the poll numbers cited above — it isn’t hard to understand why Democratic governors would conclude that erring on the side of public health is politically unwise.

Voters want life to feel “normal” again. Easing public-health mandates is unlikely to grant that wish. But letting the mask averse go barefaced indoors is something Democratic governors can do, and ending the pandemic manifestly isn’t. So they’re pursuing the kind of normalization that is within their capacity. Even if the pivot fails to quell voters’ pandemic angst, it may at least transmute discontent with Democratic officeholders into more existential forms of disquiet. Unless or until a new, more menacing variant arises, anyway.

The Democratic Party’s ‘Mask Off’ Moment