Masking battles show how issue that buoyed Biden in 2020 won’t help party in midterms

GOP sees opening after pandemic fatigue fueled win in Virginia

A sign reminding riders to wear a face mask to prevent the spread of COVID-19 appears on a bus on First Street outside the Capitol on Jan. 10. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
A sign reminding riders to wear a face mask to prevent the spread of COVID-19 appears on a bus on First Street outside the Capitol on Jan. 10. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted February 16, 2022 at 5:00am

Corrected Feb. 16 | The official transcript of President Joe Biden’s 20-minute speech about lowering the cost of health care last week in Virginia Rep. Abigail Spanberger’s district was more than 3,300 words. “Masks” was not one of them, even though the administration decided just weeks earlier to make high-quality masks available free at retailers and pharmacies around the country as another step to curb the COVID-19 pandemic.

Since then, governors in blue states such as New Jersey and California announced they would lift mandates that people wear masks indoors. They said it was because the omicron spike in infections had come down markedly without hospitals being overwhelmed, but it also comes after Republican Glenn Youngkin successfully tapped into public fatigue with the pandemic to flip a blue state in the Virginia governor’s race three months ago. Youngkin has gone a step further, issuing an executive order that bars mask mandates in schools, and drawing some lawsuits over his authority before the state legislature passed a bill that would allow parents to opt their children out of schools’ mask requirements.

Meanwhile, Spanberger and other Democrats looking at tough reelection fights this November are under fire from Republican campaign operatives working to reproduce the Youngkin formula.

“Will Wexton, Spanberger and Luria ignore parents’ rights?” a Jan. 26 email blast from the National Republican Congressional Committee asked, referring also to Virginia Democratic Reps. Jennifer Wexton and Elaine Luria

Spanberger’s campaign would not comment on the GOP’s line of attack, but it is a theme that is playing out far beyond Virginia races. A National Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee email aimed at Florida Rep. Val B. Demings, a Democrat vying to challenge GOP Sen. Marco Rubio, was titled “Demings Hypocrisy: Masks for Thee Not for Me.” In Georgia, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams apologized for appearing unmasked with school children who were wearing masks.

The effort by the GOP to stand up against masks and paint Democrats as hypocritically mandating them comes as federal advice about masking from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has not changed.

But it’s a clear sign that an issue Biden ran on successfully in 2020, the federal response to the pandemic, is not one Democrats can expect to rely on this November.

Will it matter?

With less than nine months until the midterm elections, the state of the pandemic could change, so there’s no way to measure how damaging the GOP attacks will be.

Rory Cooper, a partner at Purple Strategies, said that voters’ feelings over masking policies would largely depend on where they live, noting that suburban voters in Democratic-led states would be more likely to factor that into who they vote for than people who live in red states that haven’t dealt with those type of restrictions.

“If schools open normally with almost no restrictions in the fall of 2022, then they have some hope of some of that lingering resentment receding, but there still will be some lingering resentment,” Cooper said. “Democrats have to start baking that into what the midterms are going to look like.”

Although members of Congress don’t have the same sway over school policies as state officials do, Cooper said that voters may not make that distinction “when it’s very clear that Republican politicians allowed children to live much more normal lives while Democratic politicians are still keeping children within these draconian measures.”

Recently, more Democrats have argued that it’s time to adjust to living with the virus. Rep. Ami Bera, D-Calif., one of three House Democrats who are also doctors, wrote in an op-ed Monday that it is time to adjust to living with the pandemic. People should wear masks when there are “flare-ups” of respiratory viruses, he wrote. 

“There’s no guarantee that we won’t face new variants, some more evasive of our current vaccines or more threatening than Omicron,” Bera wrote. “But as we enter the third year of the pandemic, it’s time we acknowledge that this virus is here to stay, and we must learn how to manage and live with it as we have with other respiratory pathogens.”

Confidence dropping

A recent poll from the Pew Research Center found that positive ratings of how public health officials were responding to the pandemic dropped 10 percentage points since August, with the American public almost evenly divided between approving or disapproving of the response.

Republicans in Congress are doing what they can to sharpen the distinctions.

“When offered an opportunity to correct course, the Democrats in this chamber doubled down on keeping kids in masks,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said in a statement last week after House Democrats voted against a measure to rescind mandates in K-12 schools. “The timing is especially frustrating to parents who have seen the same Democrat politicians pushing mandates, blatantly ignoring the very restrictions they are forcing on kids.”

New York Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, who chairs the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, told reporters that parents can know what’s best for their children in their school and credited the Biden administration for navigating the country towards “a clear off-ramp.” He said in a tweet that he supported New York Gov. Kathy Hochul’s announcement to roll back the state’s requirement.

“People are sick to death of this pandemic,” Maloney said at a news conference last week. “I do believe, because of the president's leadership ... and the Democratic plan to beat the virus, that we will be in a position to communicate a clear off-ramp and to make sure people understand that they will be in a position to care for themselves, for their families.”

Georges Benjamin, the executive director of the American Public Health Association, acknowledged that most people are tired of masking and that wearing masks at this point in the pandemic is a tool to further reduce risk, but he said vaccinations are now the primary way of reducing risk. 

‘Political element’

“The governors are primarily saying we’re going to pass that decision on to local authorities so they can, in many ways, fine tune it to their local needs,” he said. “There may be a political element to that, probably.”

Still, Benjamin added that projections show cases will continue to fall in the coming weeks, when many of the policy changes are set to take place. Shifting to local control over masking will allow areas to respond more directly if there’s an outbreak in one area, as the virus becomes endemic. 

The CDC has not updated its guidance as states have changed their policies. 

“At this time, we continue to recommend masking in areas of high and substantial transmission. That’s most of the country right now,” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said at a Feb. 9 press briefing.

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat who announced plans to roll back the state’s mandate to wear masks in schools last week, said in an interview Sunday with CBS that factors including the state’s case count, hospitalization rate and in-school transmission are “going in a dramatically good direction.”

Murphy said he’d taken a better approach than Youngkin in Virginia, as he gave four weeks' notice before lifting the requirement and is giving individual districts more authority.

“With great respect, they've done that backwards. They basically banned mandates … and then said to the districts, sue us to get that overturned. We've done the exact opposite,” Murphy said.

This report was corrected to accurately reflect the Nov. 8 date of Election Day this year.