Amid Omicron Wave, Some Democrats Change Tune On Mandates And Lockdowns

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Dylan Housman Deputy News Editor
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Democratic solidarity on COVID-19 policy is beginning to break.

President Joe Biden laid out his administration’s response to the Omicron variant last week as new cases surge in many parts of the country and some Americans panic about an uncertain future. But unlike during previous waves, more and more Democrats are saying no to new lockdowns and mandates to stop the spread.

New York has been one of the most restrictive states in the country at various points in the pandemic, but Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul appears to be drawing a line at school closures.

“We are keeping our schools open, let me repeat that, we are keeping our schools open,” Hochul said Monday. “Because we are dealing with a very different variant at this time, we believe that it is critically important that our children not end up in the same situation they were for so many months when they were so displaced from their normal environment … we are in a different environment, different circumstance.”

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio similarly promised no new shutdowns of schools or businesses Dec. 21. While Hochul has implemented a mask-or-vaccinate mandate at indoor spaces statewide, some local Democratic officials have said they won’t enforce it.

Perhaps the most forceful Democrat against new mandates has been Colorado Gov. Jared Polis. He said earlier this month that he won’t even bring mask mandates back to his state, because the “emergency is over.” Echoing a sentiment of many Republicans, Polis explained that the biggest thing people can do to protect themselves is get vaccinated, and everyone has had plenty of time to make that choice by now. “Frankly, people who want to be protected [have gotten vaccinated]. Those who get sick, it’s almost entirely their own darn fault.”

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer faced intense backlash for her lockdown policies last year. Now she’s singing a different tune. Whitmer said Tuesday that it’s critical Michiganders get vaccinated because schools must stay open. At the same time, she’s rejected a vaccine mandate for state employees, expressing concern that it will drive workers away at a time they’re needed most.

These shifts in attitude toward COVID-19 policy may be driven by science. The Omicron variant appears to be less severe than prior strains in terms of intensity of disease, and deaths are not skyrocketing at the rate of cases in most places. Politics may be a factor too, though. Polling indicates that Americans are fatigued by ongoing concern about COVID-19, and they aren’t as panicked about Omicron as the media and public health officials often have been. (RELATED: Omicron Can Be So Mild, Americans Are Struggling To Distinguish It From A Common Cold)

A recent Axios-Ipsos poll found that only 37% of Americans are extremely or very concerned about Omicron. In the same poll, only 23% of respondents said they planned to cancel holiday travel plans. (RELATED: Despite Evidence, Walensky Refuses To Call Omicron ‘Mild’ In Interview With Fox’s Bret Baier)

The pushback from within the party is coming at the federal level, too. Two Senate Democrats, West Virginia’s Joe Manchin and Montana’s Jon Tester, joined Republicans in voting to overturn President Joe Biden’s federal vaccine mandate for businesses with more than 100 employees.

Biden himself even admitted Monday that there’s “no federal solution” for the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the first signs that his administration may take a more hands-off approach. Still, federal health officials aren’t singing the same tune, with Dr. Anthony Fauci asserting that the United States should consider vaccine mandates for airline travel.

While Biden indicated some leeway with his Monday comment, his team is pushing forward with the federal vaccine mandate, forced masking for air travelers and strict CDC guidelines on quarantining.