It's over, says Colorado Gov. Jared Polis.
In a lengthy interview with Colorado Public Radio, the Democratic governor says the "medical emergency" phase of the COVID-19 pandemic has passed. With vaccines readily available to anyone who wants one, Polis says it is time for public health officials to step aside and let individuals make their own decisions about masks. Even with the emergence of the new omicron variant, Polis is refusing to reimplement a statewide mask mandate.
"The emergency is over. You know, public health [officials] don't get to tell people what to wear; that's just not their job," Polis said. "You don't tell people what to wear. You don't tell people to wear a jacket when they go out in winter and force them to [wear it]. If they get frostbite, it's their own darn fault."
When vaccines were not readily available to anyone who wanted one, Polis argued, mask mandates made sense as an alternative. But following the science means adjusting to changing circumstances, and vaccines are far more effective at mitigating COVID hospitalizations and deaths.
"At this point, if you haven't been vaccinated, it's really your own darn fault," Polis said.
Local public health authorities in Colorado have the power to implement their own mask mandates, and some have. In Denver, for example, masks are required indoors, even for vaccinated individuals. That means you have to engage in the nonsensical bit of COVID theater in which you don a mask to walk from the front door of a brewery to the bar, then remove it to eat, drink, and socialize in close proximity with other people. If my experience visiting the city earlier this month was any indication, most people go along with the mandate but roll their eyes at the absurdity of it all, if you ask.
More than 20 months into the pandemic, there probably aren't a lot of people hanging on every word of a governor or public health official to determine how they go about each day. We've all made our own assessments of what risks are acceptable, which are not, and which inconveniences we'll tolerate to travel, dine, or socialize.
Still, Polis' comments matter because so few officials are willing to acknowledge the obvious. Emergencies do not last forever. They are, by definition, acute events that require out-of-the-ordinary responses. As we reach the end of 2021, the pandemic remains a serious public health issue, but (for the vaccinated, at least) it's no longer an emergency. If there was a time that required the equivalent of executive orders reminding you to wear a coat when it's cold outside, that time has passed.
It might seem like Polis is bucking liberal orthodoxy by declaring the pandemic's emergency phase to be over, but it could be that he's just ahead of the curve. This weekend, the New York Times editorial board sounded a similar note in suggesting that "leaders at all levels" pursue policies "to help us all live more normally with this virus, rather than let it control us."
That includes keeping schools open no matter what, doing away with pointless "COVID theater," and continuing to promote vaccines as the most effective means of protecting yourself. "Even as we remain vigilant against the coronavirus, we need not remain in a state of paralyzing hypervigilance," the editorial board concludes. "Returning to the sound basics of public health, continuing the progress of medical innovation, and ratcheting back the societal anxiety around the pandemic could make us all a lot healthier."
The emergence of the omicron variant should not change any of this. Vaccines seem to be effective at preventing serious illness and death from omicron, and the inevitable breakthrough infections are thankfully not severe.
As we head into another COVID winter, what Americans need now is not more hectoring from public health experts or another round of strong-armed mandates and misguided restrictions from elected officials—rules that those same leaders have been caught skirting or undermining all too often. We need straight talk like what Polis delivered on Colorado Public Radio. Getting vaccinated is the best way to protect yourself. Wearing a mask should be a personal choice. Decide how best to live with a threat that's not going away anytime soon. If you can't take responsibility for protecting yourself and those around you, the state won't (and shouldn't) do it for you.