Early last week, President Joe Biden pledged to pursue a more “aggressive effort” to promote the lifestyle benefits of getting vaccinated. “It’s not only you can hug your grandchildren,” he said. “You can do a lot more.” Communicating the value of getting vaccinated had suddenly become an urgent mission for this White House.
The CDC had only recently informed fully vaccinated people that the only upside to being immunized against COVID was that they could now go without masks in outdoor settings—something that the vaccinated and unvaccinated alike were doing without the CDC’s imprimatur. That caution was the subject of intense criticism among elite opinion makers as the downsides associated with COVID maximalism had already become apparent. Pandemic-related mitigation measures, including school closures in concert with expanded unemployment benefits, produced a tremendous drag on the economy’s recovery from its post-pandemic lows. If the administration wasn’t careful, it would risk sacrificing one of its primary directives—presiding over the resumption of economic activity—in pursuit of another: containing a contagion already on the wane.
With this in mind, “the science” suddenly shifted. Last Thursday, the CDC and the president both abandoned their prior caution and advised all fully vaccinated Americans that they could ditch their masks in all but a handful of settings. This was advertised, reasonably enough, as a new incentive for the unvaccinated to get vaccinated. But among Democratic elected officials who had fully internalized the administration’s prior caution, this new guidance was not welcome. Not only have those representatives dismissed and ignored “the science,” as it were, but they are justifying their recalcitrance by citing the administration’s most celebrated officials.
For example, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy reacted to the CDC’s determination as though it was a display of pure madness. “We will keep our indoor mask mandate in place in public settings as we continue to work toward our vaccination goals,” he announced. “To be clear, we’re making incredible progress, but we’re not there yet.” What medical expertise justified his determination that the CDC’s guidance (which the governor spent the last year citing to justify any and all restriction on private social or economic life) had become intolerably lax? That of no less a figure than Dr. Anthony Fauci.
“Dr. Fauci himself said yesterday that he thinks lifting indoor mask mandates at this time could lead to a rise in infections,” Murphy insisted. “So, we’re not going to let up for the next few weeks as we keep pushing forward on our statewide vaccination goals.” But with 70 percent of the state’s adult population either partially or fully vaccinated and the state’s COVID case rate declining to the point of negligible risk, it suggests New Jersey’s chief executive made a judgment call that isn’t grounded in “the science” alone.
Murphy wasn’t the only Democrat who recoiled from the new directive. Last week, California Gov. Gavin Newsom promised his state’s residents that all mask requirements would be lifted on June 15, just hours before the CDC stepped all over his pledge. Petitions from municipal officials to move faster in the effort to comport with federal guidelines have been met with stony silence. “I think we’ve got to get some clarification from the CDC,” said Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot. It isn’t at all obvious what needs clarifying; their agency’s assertion that masks are unnecessary outside of settings like buses and airplanes or in crowded indoor environments hospitals, prisons, and homeless shelters couldn’t be clearer. In the meantime, Lightfoot explained, “I’m going to continue to wear a mask in public, and I’m going to encourage others to do so.”
A charitable explanation for these displays of excessive caution would attribute them to understandable anxiety and confusion over the administration’s abrupt departure from past practice. But it’s not clear that such a charitable explanation is warranted. After all, New Jersey’s Gov. Murphy spent the weekend informing his state’s voters that the CDC’s guidance will imperil a variety of crucial Democratic constituencies and interest groups.
The governor was quick to highlight how the United Food and Commercial Workers union had come out against the CDC’s policy, as did the Retail Industry Leaders Association. “Vax-tiered guidance for public settings feels problematic, especially for workers,” wrote one epidemiologist cited by Murphy. Another implied that lifting mask mandates now would reward all the wrong people. “People who became eligible on 4/19 (rule-followers who didn’t jump the line) will become fully vaccinated no later than 6/15,” another physician explained. “Either do [the] hard work of figuring out who is vaccinated (vaccine passports),” he wrote.”Or wait 4 weeks.”
These are not epidemiological considerations. They are political concerns. Murphy has determined that the mounting evidence that lifting all mask mandates now is wholly justified and will increase economic activity and raise vaccination rates, is not enough for him to risk irritating his core constituencies.
But the Biden administration didn’t unreservedly embrace these new guidelines out of altruism or a sick impulse to experiment with public health. The unprecedented mitigation efforts designed to prevent the spread of COVID and cope with its debilitating effects on public life have reached the point of diminishing returns. The imposition of safety-conscience maximalism on the general public now competes with and threatens to undermine a more conventional objective for the party in power: promoting the general welfare.
Democrats have every reason to believe they are more likely to be punished for an underperforming economy next November than be rewarded by those who are terrified of the outside world. They are now trying to balance the interests of their most uncompromising constituents, who prefer the mid-pandemic status quo, against those of a successful governing party. And because the Biden administration spent its first five months leaning into risk aversion, it has provided its allies with all the tools they need to avoid changing course even at the expense of their best political interests.