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State reopenings sharpen political divide over virus

WASHINGTON — Decisions by two Republican governors to remove all coronavirus restrictions in their states have reignited the political debate on the pandemic response, elevating it as a campaign issue this year and in 2022.

Republicans Greg Abbott of Texas and Tate Reeves of Mississippi announced last week they’re eliminating state mask mandates and allowing businesses to reopen at full capacity, setting expectations for other GOP-led states to follow suit.

The moves drew dire warnings from health officials and Democrats that they risk igniting another spike in cases and deaths and stood in stark contrast to Joe Biden’s cautious approach to getting the U.S. back to normalcy. The president issued a rebuke, calling the moves “Neanderthal thinking” and “a big mistake.”

Yet the governors continue to follow the path of former President Donald Trump, who downplayed the virus from the outset, helped stoke opposition to mask-wearing, and made the pandemic a partisan issue.

Now, politicians are using reopening plans to show where their priorities lie as they seek a balance between public health and economic recovery.

“This is going to be the first time the public gets to definitively speak on the issue of how did you handle it, how did you do,” former New Jersey GOP Gov. Chris Christie said of elections to be held in the waning days of the pandemic. “No matter whether you’re the incumbent or the challenger, there’s going to be a lot of discussion about it.”

Republicans such as South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis have risen to GOP prominence in part by opposing mandates as an assault on personal liberties and businesses. A survey by Trump pollster Tony Fabrizio first reported by Politico shows DeSantis is the second choice for 2024 among Republicans if Trump doesn’t run.

Most Democratic governors are easing restrictions more cautiously and generally in line with U.S. Centers for Disease Control guidelines. But they too face a political risk: Wait too long to lift mandates as more Americans get vaccinated, and face criticism for hurting small businesses, restricting freedom unnecessarily, and of caving to teachers unions by not reopening schools more quickly.

On Sunday, Reeves said livelihoods must be protected as well as lives, and that declining levels of hospitalizations and critical cases in his state don’t warrant either maintaining government mandates or the criticism from health officials and Democrats.

“Unlike President Biden, who wants to insult Americans and insult Mississippians, I actually trust Mississippians to make good decisions,” Reeves said on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday. “The numbers don’t justify government interaction at the levels that we’re seeing in other states.”

Reeves also said he would “strongly encourage” state residents to continue to wear masks.

The key races in 2021 are those for the governorships of New Jersey and Virginia, and for mayor of New York City — all currently Democrats. Virus restrictions will still be a fresh issue in those races. A poll released Friday by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research showed that 70% of U.S. adults approve of how Biden has handled the public health crisis, which is good news for cautious Democrats.

In New Jersey, Gov. Phil Murphy is running for re-election, and despite earning praise for his handling of the pandemic, Republicans blame him for the state’s high per-capita death rate and the number of cases in nursing homes — despite aggressive restrictions that Republicans also blame for closing small businesses.

The COVID-19 response could also be a factor in Florida and 35 other states that have contests for governor in 2022, as well as for the congressional mid-term elections.

“If there’s no spike, those who were aggressive in reopening will reap the benefit,” Doug Heye, a Republican strategist, said, referring to potential increases in COVID-19 cases and deaths. “And the corollary is true: if there is a spike — and the spike is in those places that got rid of their mask mandates earlier, reopened too soon — there’s a very real political price to be paid.”

Deaths have slowed and cases have fallen across the U.S. since January, but the decline in cases has plateaued. And by month’s end, the more-contagious U.K. variant of COVID-19 will dominate cases in the U.S., according to the CDC.

DeSantis took a premature victory lap in May when it appeared the state had dodged the worst of the pandemic. Within weeks, Florida became a hot spot, leaving the governor with the kind of blowback that might yet face Abbott or Reeves. In DeSantis’s case, the Republican quickly recovered his swagger when a fall virus wave engulfed the entire country, making Florida less of an outlier.

Critics said Abbott’s move was an effort to distract Texans from the destruction caused by widespread power outages during a rare freeze in his state that killed more than 70 people in February. But with vaccinations still months from completion, his aggressive reopening sparked complaints statewide. Mandate or not, many busineses in Texas continue to operate with mask and social distancing requirements.

Christie said that while he would err on the side of opening up a state more quickly, there are political risks for relaxing coronavirus restrictions too fast, as well as for waiting too long. The decisions should be based on the data and circumstances in a state, not politics, he said.

Data scientist Youyang Gu, who created one of the best-performing COVID-19 forecast models, said he estimates the best time for reopening may be in the summer, when the levels of total immunity among vulnerable individuals — due to vaccines and past infection — may top off. After that, they aren’t likely to get much better.

“We’ll have a return to normal in the summer when anyone who wants a vaccine can get one,” Gu said. “It’s important for our country as a whole to set clear guidelines for when restrictions can be relaxed and dropped.”

Half of all Americans age 65 and over — a group that accounts for 4 of every 5 COVID-19 deaths — have already gotten at least one shot en route to full vaccination. By that measure alone, future spikes are already poised to be at least 40% less deadly.

Gu said health authorities risk causing the public to tune them out if they continue to call for restrictions that are seen as overbearing even when the situation has clearly improved.

Whatever politicians are doing, most Americans are still wearing masks. About 77% of Americans say they always wear one outside the home, according to survey data as of Feb. 22 provided by the Institute for Health Metrics and Analysis.

In Noem’s South Dakota and Republican-leaning Wyoming it’s 56% and 53%, respectively, the lowest in the country. About 73% of Floridians and 77% in Texas mask up. And it’s above 80% in much of the Democratic-heavy Northeast and California, the surveys show.

The issue can even be fraught within the GOP. Republican Gov. Mike DeWine plans to lift restrictions in Ohio when cases drop below 50 per 100,000 people over two weeks. He said on ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday that while he’s optimistic about progress, it’s not time to eliminate mandates. But after being initially praised for his aggressive response to the outbreak last year, he has faced criticism from some Republicans and threats of a primary challenge next year for the limitations he imposed.

Former Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel, a Republican running in 2022 for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by retiring Rob Portman, issued a statement on Wednesday calling for DeWine to “reopen Ohio immediately” and remove all restrictions to “allow our families and communities to make decisions without the heavy hand of government crippling their liberties any longer.”

Even some Republican governors are keeping their mask mandate and restrictions for now to be safe.

“We need to be a little more cautious,” Republican West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice said on CBS’ “Face the Nation” on Sunday. “Nobody likes a mask, but for crying out loud, if we could be a little more prudent for 30 more days or 45 more days or whatever it took for us to get on rock-solid ground, that’s the approach West Virginia’s going to take.”

Democratic strategist James Carville said Trump created a brand out of being skeptical of mask-wearing and other coronavirus restrictions that other Republicans are now following. But Democrats could stand to be more hopeful and to appear a little less eager to keep coronavirus mandates in place, he said.

“I understand the public health directive and you have to be appropriately cautious, but you don’t need to be enthusiastic about it,” Carville said.

Connecticut, with a Democratic governor, is doing away with crowd caps on restaurants, retail stores, gyms, houses of worship and more on March 19.

Tom Frieden, former director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, said mask mandates and opening the economy are not mutually exclusive.

“If you keep a mask mandate in place, you’ll be able to open more and be more likely to keep it open without risk to people, not just to other customers, but the workers there as well,” Frieden said on “Fox News Sunday.”




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