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Democrats scramble to reverse course on COVID restrictions ahead of midterms

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Democrats across the country are scrambling to reverse course on COVID-19 restrictions as this year’s midterm elections loom. 

With the notable exception of the White House, Democrats at every level are signaling their support for returning to normal as polls show Americans are weary of coronavirus restrictions, which Republican states have largely done away with. 

According to a recent poll by Monmouth University, 70% of Americans say it’s time for the country to move on from the pandemic, and a decreasing number of Americans support COVID-related mandates. President Biden’s approval ratings on handling COVID, once a strength, are also now underwater, with 43% approving and 53% disapproving, according to the poll.

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Biden has chosen to follow the lead of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which still recommends universal masking indoors and in schools. 

Blue defiance

But with the midterms ahead, many Democrats who once led the way in issuing lockdown orders and mandates over the course of the pandemic are easing restrictions in their states in defiance of the administration.

Numerous blue state governors this week have announced that they are rolling back coronavirus restrictions, and prominent congressional Democrats have also signaled their support for returning to normal. 

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul announced that her state will end its COVID-19 mandate requiring face coverings in most indoor public settings but will keep it for schools. Illinois announced the same. 

Rhode Island Gov. Dan McKee said Wednesday his state will end its indoor vaccine-or-mask requirement this week, followed by the school mask mandate in March. Massachusetts, which is generally considered a blue state but has a centrist Republican governor, will end its school mask mandate at the end of the month. 

Earlier this week, New Jersey, Connecticut and Delaware all disclosed plans to join states that have lifted or never had mask requirements for their schools. 

Swing states first

Swing states like Michigan, Colorado and Pennsylvania were among the first Democrat-led states to loosen COVID-19 restrictions last year. Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who is up for reelection this year, implemented some of the strictest COVID-19 orders in the country in 2020, including banning travel between two residences and the selling of non-essential goods. She lifted most of her restrictions last summer and has since pushed vaccinations as the best way to slow the spread. 

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, who is also up for reelection, has taken a similar approach and refused to implement any new mandates.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, who is unable to run again this year, leaving his seat up for grabs, said in December, “Local municipalities, as you know, I think ought to be free to do with what they want,” echoing what many Republicans like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis have been vilified for saying for the past two years.

Less than a year ago, Biden said the lifting of mask mandates in Republican-led states amounted to “Neanderthal thinking.”

President Biden speaks in the East Room of the White House, Jan. 31, 2022, in Washington.
(Associated Press)

The movement to “move on” from the pandemic appears to have sped up in recent days as new coronavirus cases decrease following the omicron variant surge. Also expediting matters: A new Johns Hopkins study saying the lockdowns of 2020 did little to curb the COVID-19 death rate and a new guidance Friday by the CDC saying the popular cloth masks accepted by most mandates are the least effective in preventing the spread.

Living with COVID

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat who barely eked out a win in the reliably blue Garden State in November, was the first to lift his school mask mandate this week after the new CDC guidance, and Democratic governors in California, Delaware, Oregon, Connecticut and New York quickly followed course. 

“We are not going to manage COVID to zero,” Murphy said Monday on Twitter. “We have to learn how to live with COVID as we move from a pandemic to an endemic phase of this virus.”

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy is seen in New Brunswick, New Jersey, Oct. 28, 2021.

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy is seen in New Brunswick, New Jersey, Oct. 28, 2021.
(Getty Images)

“Our statewide indoor mask requirement will expire on 2/15,” California Gov. Gavin Newsom, who is up for reelection this fall, tweeted Monday. “Unvaccinated people will still need to wear masks indoors.”

“Oregonians have stepped up during the omicron surge — wearing masks, getting vaccinated and boosted and keeping each other safe,” Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, who is unable to run for reelection announced Monday. “Because of your actions, Oregon will lift mask requirements no later than March 31.”

“We are lifting DE’s statewide mask mandate for indoor public settings at 8am on Friday, Feb 11,” Delaware Gov. John Carney tweeted Monday. “The mask requirement in K-12 public & private schools and child care facilities expires at 11:59pm on Thursday, March 31.”

“It’s about time to end the statewide school mask mandate and enable each local boards of education to decide what is best for their schools,” Connecticut Gov. Ted Lamont, who is up for reelection, tweeted Wednesday.

“At this time, we say that it’s the right decision to lift this mandate for indoor businesses and let counties, cities and businesses to make their own decisions on what they want to do with respect to mask or vaccination requirement,” New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, who is running to keep the governor’s seat, said Wednesday, dropping her state’s “mask or vax” mandate for businesses.

The Youngkin effect

The shift in Democratic messaging surrounding the pandemic was buoyed in part by Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s upset win in Virginia in November. Focus group findings by Third Way, a think tank aligned with Democrats, found that swing voters who voted for Youngkin over Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe were motivated by COVID-19 restrictions and school closures even more so than critical race theory being taught in the classroom, NBC News reported.

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House Democrats’ reelection arm has picked up on this messaging ahead of the midterms, where Democrats face an uphill battle to hold onto their razor-thin majorities in the House and Senate.

“Democrats’ plan to fight COVID is working — cases are down & vaccines are widely available,” Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, tweeted Wednesday. “Now, it’s time to give people their lives back. With science as our guide, we’re ready to start getting back to normal.” 

“People are ready to pivot” from the pandemic, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Wednesday.

It’s a stark contrast to what the left was saying just a month ago when Youngkin banned school mask mandates in Virginia.

“Kids will die,” CNN political pundit Joe Lockhart tweeted three weeks ago.

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Despite the relaxing of COVID restrictions by multiple Democratic governors, Biden is sticking by the CDC, and White House press secretary Jen Psaki has downplayed any apparent conflict between the governors and his administration. On Wednesday, reporters pressed Psaki on why the administration appears to be one step behind Biden’s fellow Democrats.

“Our guidance has consistently been this,” Psaki said. “When you are in a high-transmission area, which is everywhere in the country, you should wear a mask in indoor settings, including schools.”

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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