Democratic Governors Are Running to Where the COVID Ball Is Going
This "back to normal" timing isn't arbitrary — it reflects where numbers and preferences should be in March and April
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In the last week, with the Omicron wave crashing nearly as quickly as it rose, we’ve seen several Democratic governors taking big steps to prepare for returns to normal. Governors in New Jersey and Delaware announced imminent end dates for statewide school mask mandates, following a similar move last month in Pennsylvania. In New York, both a general indoor mask mandate and one for schools are set to expire this month, and Gov. Kathy Hochul has sent indications at least the former will be going away imminently, given the current trends. California and Oregon are also lifting statewide indoor mask mandates. Even Los Angeles Rep. Ted Lieu, one of the last people I’d cite as an example of heterodoxy in the Democratic Party, is urging moves back to normal in light of the changing situation.
These moves are raising hackles from two groups of people who believe nothing ever changes about COVID: emergency-forever fanatics of the sort who put WEAR A MASK in their Twitter display names,1 and soft COVID denialists who want to know why Democratic politicians weren’t saying this 18 months ago, before there were vaccines or useful COVID therapeutics.
But in fact, things have changed — about the virus, about the prevalence of the virus, about the pharmaceutical interventions we have to deal with the virus, and about the public’s willingness to comply with disruptive non-pharmaceutical interventions in light of all those other developments. All of these are relevant inputs to both private decision-making and public policymaking about COVID.
I’m not saying Democratic governors have gotten this timing exactly right. In particular I think there has been too much masking in schools for too long (just as there were too many closures). I am saying the relationship between the fundamentals and the policy has gone in the right direction: The case for non-pharmaceutical interventions, including mask mandates, will be weaker in March than it was in January; it was stronger in January than it was last October; it was weaker last October than it was last April, and so on, and public policies have roughly moved in line with those changes.
While I have had positive things to say about Colorado Gov. Jared Polis and his politics of normalcy, my view on the politics of COVID mandates is not so simple as to say that fewer rules is always better for Democrats. While officials in Los Angeles County have been in thrall to the emergency-forever crowd and appear set to have an indoor mask mandate indefinitely, those where I live in New York have mostly struck a good balance between implementing caution about the virus and urging a return to normal. Officials here resisted calls to restore a general indoor mask mandate during the Delta wave, and as a result, when Gov. Hochul did impose one in December with the huge surge of Omicron cases, it was credibly temporary — I expect the mandate to roll off later this week or, if extended, very shortly after that.
If you want the flexibility to set the emergency dial to on in the future — which could be necessary due to some change to the nature of COVID or due to a different future pandemic — you need to find ways to turn it to off when cases fall to manageable levels, as New York officials are currently in the process of doing.
The main response to this from the emergency-forever crowd is to point to the large number of daily COVID deaths, which is a real and tragic phenomenon, but it has no particular policy implication. Non-pharmaceutical interventions, like masks, are not supposed to be symbols of piety and mourning, though they are often being used that way. Whatever the current level of deaths, the right question is: What is the benefit of this proposed policy, and what are the costs? The cost-benefit calculation for these interventions was much more favorable prior to and during the initial vaccine rollout: cases delayed by weeks or months constituted lives saved in mass numbers. Now, if the end of the Omicron wave isn’t the off-ramp, there is no obvious off-ramp. So the analyzed cost of proposed NPIs must go up as their presumed term is indefinite, even as the benefits of NPI policies fall due to lower compliance, lower virulence of Omicron, a greater number of prior infections, and high contagiousness that makes waves less responsive to cautious behavior anyway.
There is also a change to the moral calculus. Deaths are overwhelmingly more likely in people who have chosen not to be vaccinated, and one thing Gov. Polis is right about is that the vaccines change the nature of our collective responsibility — once individuals have the tools to protect themselves and the death rate among people who have taken available precautions has fallen drastically, the moral obligation of others to disrupt their own lives to affect the death rate decreases accordingly. With highly effective pharmaceutical interventions that only some people are willing to receive, COVID remains a tragedy but ceases to be an emergency.
All that said, deaths are a lagging indicator, and the sharp declines we are observing in cases and hospitalizations should be followed imminently by a sharp decline in daily deaths. With a less-virulent but extremely infectious strain that has burned rapidly through the population, we got a large spike in deaths even as infection-fatality rates were much lower than before. Once that spike is done, we’ll be having much lower case rates in a population with higher levels of immunity and more widely available treatments for acute COVID. In other words, the case for NPIs can be expected to continue to deteriorate in the near term — unless and until there is another fundamental large and bad change in the nature of COVID risk,2 in which case it will be good that public officials built back up the public’s capacity to accept disruptions by maximizing normalcy when it became possible again, and no later than that.
I see Republicans crying that Democrats changing their stance on non-pharmaceutical interventions is politics, and sure, it is politics — inasmuch as politics is supposed to consist of making popular decisions your constituents will support. Public preferences shifting in response to conditions, politicians shifting in response to changing public preferences: isn’t that what democracy is supposed to be? Maybe it’s inconsistent with some Democrats’ pledges to “trust the science and listen to the experts” — since public health experts disproportionately make non-expert value judgments that make them especially receptive to NPIs — but the pledge to skip over the value judgments of laypersons about what they’re willing to tolerate to achieve an outcome predicted by an expert was a mistake all along.
Now if only the Biden Administration would provide some national leadership on these issues. It’s absurd that Democratic governors are having to go around the Centers for Disease Control to come up with procedures to normalize school operations — to get to a place where COVID is treated like any other respiratory illness, where it’s addressed by people staying home when they have symptoms. Democratic governors are running to where the ball is going, anticipating what the political and practical necessities are going to be by spring, and the federal administration should be doing the same.
Often next to a Twitter photo of themselves wearing a mask, or of a cat or a dog — for some reason, sanctimonious liberals are especially fond of pet photos as Twitter avatars.
This possibility — unknown unknowns — is sometimes trotted out as a reason for forever NPIs. More infections means more risk of new variants. Sure. But that is a global phenomenon, and local or even national policies have little impact on the global possibility of new variants arising, even if those policies are highly effective at controlling the local or national case count, which is often a dubious proposition.