COVID-19’s second wave is upon us. Rates of infections in the United States have soared over the last month to record levels. COVID-related hospitalizations and deaths remain well below the proportional rates the country experienced in the spring, but those are lagging indicators. While the forecasts that predict a staggering mortality rate in the near future should be met with skepticism, they cannot be ignored.
The United States is in many ways better prepared to meet this challenge than it was earlier this year. Many, but not all. The country’s political conditions suggest that America’s response to the pandemic’s resurgence may be even less nimble than it was in March and April. The election cycle yielded intense competition among the states to develop novel and tailored approaches to mitigating the effects of the pandemic. Meanwhile, the federal government moved with relative speed to bankroll that experimentation. With the election behind us, the incentives that produced this dynamic are gone. Paralysis reigns.
“No,” New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy told Fox 5 New York reporters when asked this week if his state would go back into lockdown. “We’re gonna play at the edges of the parameters that we have in place.” At the time, those “parameters” included closing down indoor seating at restaurants after 10 p.m., mandating fully-enclosed “seating bubbles” outdoors, eliminating bar-top service across the state, and terminating interstate sports at the collegiate level. It may soon involve an 8 p.m. statewide curfew on all nonessential businesses. Murphy’s trepidation was revealing: “The cure will not be worse than the disease,” he insisted. “This is not where we were in the spring where we shut the whole place down.”
The story is much the same in Democrat-led states around the country. Many of California’s largest cities have terminated indoor dining and church services. Connecticut and Minnesota will shutter restaurants at 10 p.m. Michigan has capped the number of people who may dine together in the state at six, both inside and outdoors. The governor of New York has gone so far as to close all businesses in the state with a liquor license at 10 p.m. while also mandating limits on social gatherings in individual residences to just 10 people. In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio has told parents to expect a return to all-remote learning as early as next week.
But Democratic states are not alone. Idaho’s Gov. Brad Little has issued orders capping both outdoor and indoor gatherings at a fraction of capacity. Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb has done the same. Massachusetts’s Republican governor issued a partial stay-at-home order on November 6 and shuttered non-essential businesses beginning at 9:30 p.m. Ohio’s Mike DeWine has warned his state’s residents to expect the return of some of the strict prohibitions his state imposed in the spring in short order.
It is a testament to the traumatic and socially destabilizing experience the country endured earlier this year that even the most activist state governments are leery of the label “lockdown.” Even California’s Gov. Gavin Newsom, an enthusiastic enforcer of COVID-related restrictions, will only allow himself euphemisms like “more restrictive tiering.”
While today’s restrictions aren’t nearly as draconian as those that prevailed in the first and second quarters of 2020, that makes little difference to the establishments that were only just making ends meet before this latest wave of infections hit. Unlike in the spring and summer, though, the federal backstop is gone. Emergency measures that expanded unemployment benefits and provided funds to businesses so they could preserve their existing payrolls have expired. And no one has any incentive to resolve this impasse in the remaining months of Donald Trump’s administration.
The president has largely ceased to function as a constitutional officer. He spends his days brooding over his loss, issuing embittered tweets about the unfairness of it all while eschewing most of the public and private duties associated with the presidency. His successor, President-elect Joe Biden, has set a timetable for new coronavirus relief from Congress. But that demand alone has not broken the impasse in Congress. Even if it did, relief in the scale that is needed will not materialize until well after Biden has taken office eight weeks from now.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi seems unmoved by the urgency of the nation’s circumstances—or, at least, she is as unmoved as she was before the election. Pelosi’s recalcitrance was epitomized by an unlovely tirade she delivered on CNN in an unconvincing attempt to defend her caucus’s refusal to restore funding to the depleted Paycheck Protection Act’s coffers (in which her self-defense consisted of calling Wolf Blitzer a mouthpiece for the GOP, among other insults). Pelosi has pivoted from blaming Republican pre-election antics to blaming Republican post-election antics for her refusal to budge.
But congressional Democrats are not passive participants in this debacle. Pelosi recently joined Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer in a statement calling on Republicans to produce a “bill that provides resources to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.” Republicans did just that as recently as late October. And despite several Democratic defections, the effort to replenish COVID relief funding failed by just three votes in the Senate. Even if it had passed, that bill would have died in the Democrat-led House, where the majority party continues to demand at least $1 trillion in additional benefits beyond what the GOP-led Senate can stomach.
If this was a political gambit ahead of the elections, it didn’t pay off for Democrats. Republicans are likely to retain control of the Senate, and the Democratic minority in the House will be reduced to single digits. Eventually, Joe Biden’s party in Congress will have to climb down from the uncompromising position it struck in October. Americans cannot wait until January 20 for Democrats to work through their stages of grief, but they may have no choice. The political class in Washington is too consumed with self-pity over their respective disappointments at the polls to address this looming public health crisis.