Today New York and Massachusetts joined several other blue states that have recently lifted face mask mandates. New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, a Democrat, said businesses will no longer be required to enforce masking of unvaccinated customers, a mandate that was scheduled to expire on Thursday and will not be renewed. Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, said he will let that state's school mask mandate expire at the end of this month.
Those decisions follow similar moves on Monday by five other states with Democratic governors. New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy said the state would stop requiring students and teachers to wear masks on March 7. Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont said the state will lift its school mask mandate at the end of February. Delaware Gov. John Carney said the state's mask mandate for indoor businesses will end this Friday and its school mask mandate will be lifted at the end of March. California Gov. Gavin Newsom said the state's universal indoor mask mandate will end next week, when the requirement will no longer apply to people who are vaccinated. The Oregon Health Authority said a similar requirement will be lifted by the end of March.
This week's flurry of rule relaxations defies the advice of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which still recommends "universal masking" in K–12 schools and day care centers. The CDC also recommends that adults, regardless of their vaccination status, wear masks in "indoor public places" if they live in areas with "substantial or high" coronavirus transmission.
"Right now our CDC guidance has not changed," Director Rochelle Walensky said yesterday. "We continue to endorse universal masking in schools." Walensky said "now is not the moment" to lift mask mandates. White House press secretary Jen Psaki backed Walensky up on Monday. "Our advice to every school district is to abide by public health guidelines," Psaki told reporters. "The CDC is advising that masks can delay, reduce transmission….That still remains our recommendation."
Democratic governors, meanwhile, have concluded that it is not in their political interest to continue enforcing mask mandates. The New York Times reports that Murphy's advisers, stunned by the narrowness of his reelection victory in November, commissioned a series of focus groups to figure out why voters were disenchanted with him. "Across the board," the Times says, "voters shared frustrations over public health measures, a sense of pessimism about the future and a deep desire to return to some sense of normalcy." That research informed Murphy's decision to relax restrictions after this winter's omicron surge began to fade.
The Times says Murphy and other governors tried to persuade the Biden administration to "provide clear guidelines for their states to move from the crisis footing of a pandemic to a recognition that the virus was here to stay—and that it could be managed without completely upending daily life." But as the comments from Psaki and Walensky reflect, that effort was unsuccessful.
Recent evidence suggests that Murphy et al. have a better sense of what voters are willing to tolerate. Yesterday Virginia's Democrat-controlled Senate approved an amendment that would allow parents to opt out of school mask requirements beginning in July. Ten Democrats joined 19 Republicans in supporting the amendment.
Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin, whose surprise victory in November was driven largely by parents' anger at their lack of influence over how public schools are educating their children, wants the mandate to end sooner. But the fact that Democrats are now arguing with him about when rather than whether the mandate should be lifted reflects a growing awareness that its burdens are increasingly hard to justify.
That awareness extends to Northern Virginia, an area where support for COVID-19 mitigation measures has been especially strong. In a letter he sent to the superintendent of Fairfax County Public Schools on Monday, state Sen. J. Chapman Petersen (D–Fairfax), one of the legislators who supported the amendment approved yesterday, expresses his dismay at the district's continued obeisance to the CDC.
"To the best of my knowledge," Petersen writes, "no scientific basis has ever been offered for Forced Masking; rather parents are asked to assume that this policy 'saves lives.' After a year the data on student masking is easily found and it is overwhelming: the forced masking of school children has no correlation with community health."
Petersen questions the school district's argument that the mask mandate should be maintained because it is "popular" with parents. "By wearing a mask in a public setting," he writes, "the wearer is able to communicate a political message, e.g. 'I Care About Others' or 'I Voted for Biden' or even 'I'm Vaccinated.' The ability to communicate a political message is the essence of our First Amendment, but coercing others into adopting that statement, especially a student in a public school, is the exact opposite."
For two years, Petersen says, "we have seen the lives of our children disrupted and destroyed by a pandemic that posed little, or no, threat to them physically. Too many decisions involving children have been dictated by political expediency. As a parent, I've had enough."
As Petersen notes, the scientific basis for school mask mandates has never been strong, and the case for maintaining them is even weaker now. Life-threatening symptoms have always been rare among children, and that is especially true with the omicron variant, which is highly transmissible but tends to cause milder illness. Vaccines dramatically reduce the risk of severe symptoms for adults as well as children, and immunocompromised people who might not enjoy the same benefit can protect themselves by wearing high-quality masks even without mandates. And the omicron surge is fading fast: The seven-day average of newly identified cases in the United States, which exploded from late December to mid-January, has been falling precipitously since then.
While the CDC's insistence that children as young as 2 should be forced to wear masks did not prevent states like New Jersey and Massachusetts from lifting their state mandates, its recommendations will continue to influence school district policies. And although New York will no longer require adults to wear masks in public, the state health department is expected to renew its school mask mandate, which was scheduled to expire on February 21. California likewise has decided to mandate masks in schools but not in businesses. These states are willing to let people in the highest-risk age groups decide for themselves whether to wear masks, but they are insisting that children, who face the tiniest risk, continue to cover their faces, regardless of what they or their parents want.
Despite the lack of evidence that "universal masking" in schools and day care centers provides benefits that outweigh its costs, Walensky says "now is not the moment" to change course. When will that moment be? I suspect it will arrive after no one is paying attention to the CDC anymore.
Update: Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced on Wednesday that the state's indoor mask mandate will end on February 28, although masks will still be required in schools. Also on Wednesday, Rhode Island Gov. Dan McKee said the state's mask requirement for indoor businesses will be lifted this Friday, followed by its school mask mandate on March 4.