Democratic governors removing mask mandates say it’s because of changing science and improving COVID-19 metrics, but the numbers tell a different story.
Governors from states like New Jersey, California, Oregon, Connecticut and Illinois all announced they were lifting masking or vaccine requirements within days of each other. But in many of these blue states, COVID-19 conditions were worse when the mandates were lifted than when they were put in place.
“California’s case rate has decreased 65% since our Omicron peak. Our hospitalizations have stabilized across the state,” Democratic California Gov. Gavin Newsom tweeted Feb. 7 when he announced his state’s indoor mask mandate would be lifted Feb. 15. Like others in his party, he encouraged vaccination while citing improving conditions as justification for ditching forced masking.
NEW: CA’s case rate has decreased by 65% since our Omicron peak. Our hospitalizations have stabilized across the state.
Our statewide indoor mask requirement will expire on 2/15.
Unvaccinated people will still need to wear masks indoors.
Get vaccinated. Get boosted.
— Gavin Newsom (@GavinNewsom) February 7, 2022
Those numbers don’t tell the whole story, though. Newsom implemented California’s most recent mandate on Dec. 15. At that time statewide, California had an average new case rate of 6,270 per day, 63 deaths per day and 3,612 people in hospitals with the virus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Feb. 7, when Newsom announced the mandate would be lifted, every single pandemic metric was worse than before. The state was averaging six times as many cases, 38,514, nearly triple the deaths at 179 per day and had 10,456 residents in hospitals with the virus.
By referencing the peak of the Omicron wave, Newsom painted a picture of vastly improved conditions. He did not clarify exactly why 179 deaths per day did not warrant a mask mandate, but 63 deaths per day did.
Newsom isn’t the only Democratic leader whose pandemic policy fits this pattern. Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker implemented a new mask mandate on Aug. 26, 2021 and announced Feb. 9 it would be lifted at the end of the month. Like California, all three of the most-cited pandemic metrics — deaths, cases and hospitalizations — were worse on Feb. 9 than Aug. 26; from 29 deaths per day to 90, 3,656 cases per day to 6,140 and 1,985 hospitalizations to 2,321.
Republican officials and some conservative pundits have accused Democrats of playing politics, choosing only now to lift mandates as Americans increasingly grow tired of wearing masks or showing vaccination cards two years into the coronavirus pandemic. They’ve also gone after states that are dropping some mandates but keeping others, like masks for children, in place, ahead of the 2022 midterm cycle.
“While deep blue states like President Biden’s home state of Delaware are lifting their mask mandates, children in other blue states are still forced to participate in the pointless political theatre and wear a mask,” Republican State Leadership Committee national press secretary Stephanie Rivera told the Daily Caller. “New Mexico and Washington Democrats in the legislature should be pushing back against their governor’s unnecessary mask mandates that are rooted in politics, not facts.”
There’s polling to suggest that pivoting on pandemic restrictions is a prudent move now. An Axios-Ipsos poll conducted at the beginning of February, just days before many of these announcements lifting mandates were made, found that a narrow majority of Americans are now in favor of opening the country entirely or moving that direction with lessening restrictions. Perhaps more thorny for blue-state leaders was that Independents were almost twice as likely to support reopening as their own base voters, at 52% vs. 28%.
The issue has certainly become a thorn in the side of President Joe Biden. According to FiveThirtyEight’s tracking, his approval rating on the issue of coronavirus specifically dipped underwater for the first time recently, and now 48% of Americans disapprove of how he’s handling the pandemic, compared to just 44.5% who approve.
In Washington, D.C., Democratic Mayor Muriel Bowser lifted one of the country’s strictest vaccine mandates on Valentine’s Day. The most recent CDC data at the time showed an average of two deaths per day and 248 hospitalizations.
The vaccine mandate was put in place in the nation’s capital on Dec. 22, when hospitalizations were at 188 and there was an average of zero deaths per day.
Some long-standing school mask mandates show the same pattern. New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, who came much closer than expected to losing his reelection bid in November, announced Feb. 7 the statewide mask mandate for schools would be on the way out. The mandate had been in place for nearly two years, dating back to September 2020. (RELATED: New York Reportedly Dropping Mask Mandates For Businesses, But Not Yet Schoolchildren)
Case numbers on Feb. 7 were nearly 700% higher than on Sep. 1, 2020. Deaths were 1,440% higher, and hospitalizations were just under 1,000% higher. Vaccinations weren’t available in September 2020, but it was already known that children faced very little risk from the virus. And vaccines had been available for months in August 2021, when Murphy re-upped the mandate for the following school year despite better pandemic metrics than his state has now.
It’s true that cases, deaths and hospitalizations are now trending downward in most places in the U.S. as opposed to trending upward in fall and winter 2021, when most of these mandates were implemented. But that still raises the question of “why now” when those positive trends have been true for weeks before the trigger was pulled to end masking.
Some allies of Democrats have pointed to “changing science” rather than improved COVID-19 metrics. CNN medical analyst Leana Wen, formerly the head of Planned Parenthood, recently said on the network that masking decisions should now be on individuals and families, not made by government mandate, because the “science has changed.”
“The science has changed.” @DrLeanaWen explains why she supports lifting some pandemic restrictions and thinks the decision to wear a mask should shift from a government mandate to an individual choice. pic.twitter.com/vaiybBBF2b
— Anderson Cooper 360° (@AC360) February 8, 2022
It hasn’t. Wen cited the efficacy of one-way masking, vaccines against Omicron and the widespread availability of vaccines as examples of changing circumstances.
But Biden’s own medical advisers were saying as early as August 2021 that cloth masks aren’t particularly effective at stopping the spread compared to respirators like N95’s. There was never data to show that vaccines were much less effective at stopping severe illness or death against Omicron, just speculation that was quickly debunked. And vaccines have been available to virtually every American adult for going on a year, and kids five and up have been able to get them for months.
The list of blue states going against their own COVID-19 metrics could go on. Nevada implemented a mandate July 27 and announced its end Feb. 10. Cases and deaths were up by 44% and 150%, respectively, between the two dates. Democratic Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont called for the extension of a school mask mandate on Sep. 14, when daily cases were at 654, deaths at seven and hospitalizations at 328. He announced the lifting of that mandate Feb. 7, with the state averaging 21 deaths, 1,268 cases and having 607 hospitalizations.
Oregon also announced the end of a mask mandate Feb. 7. Cases were 145% higher, hospitalizations 54% higher and deaths 233% higher than when it was implemented Aug. 13. The metrics were also worse than they were on Dec. 2, when health authorities discussed the prospect of making the mask mandate permanent.
None of these Democratic governors or mayors have cited political science as part of the calculus for changing COVID-19 policy. It appears, though, there may be more meat on that bone than that of the actual science.