On December 6, 2021, in his last major act as mayor of New York City, Democrat Bill de Blasio announced that, to stop the spread of the omicron variant of COVID-19, all 184,000 private businesses in the city would henceforth be commanded to enforce vaccine mandates on their employees, and all children ages 5 and up (including tourists from countries that hadn't yet approved pediatric vaccines) would need to show proof of full immunization before entering most indoor venues.
"Look at a country like Germany right now—shutdowns, restrictions," de Blasio explained in a follow-up interview. "We cannot let that happen. So we had to take decisive action."
Five days later, as the Northeast was experiencing a third consecutive winter surge of coronavirus cases, Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul announced that all businesses in New York would be required to ensure their employees and customers were either provably vaccinated or masked indoors at all times; each violation would be subject to a $1,000 fine. The new rules were applicable through January 15, "after which the State will re-evaluate based on current conditions."
Hochul's announcement came almost six months to the day after her predecessor, Andrew Cuomo, had lifted almost all statewide COVID restrictions, including most indoor masking, on the occasion of New York meeting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) target of having 70 percent of adults receive at least one vaccination dose. "We can now return to life as we know it," Cuomo crowed then. By the time of Hochul's reversal, the one-shot rate among adult New Yorkers had risen to 93 percent.
The goal posts on pandemic policy haven't just been shifted, they've been uprooted, hitched to a helicopter, and transported to a different county. Joe Biden as president-elect on December 4, 2020, said, "I don't think [vaccines] should be mandatory." His spokeswoman Jen Psaki on July 23, 2021, added, "That's not the role of the federal government." CDC Director Rochelle Walensky stated unequivocally on July 31 that "there will be no federal mandate."
Biden announced a federal vaccine mandate on private employers with 100 or more workers five weeks later.
"I've tried everything in my power to get people vaccinated," the president maintained. "But even after all those efforts, we still had more than a quarter of people in the United States who were eligible for vaccinations but didn't get the shot….So, while I didn't race to do it right away, that's why I've had to move toward requirements." Look at what you made him do.
It was easier to make fun of presidential dissembling about pandemic policy back when Donald Trump was holding extemporaneous bull sessions about COVID every day on the White House lawn, or when he infamously unveiled on March 16, 2020, a bullet-pointed presentation titled "15 Days to Slow the Spread." Even factoring in hindsight bias, that was an absurdly irresponsible prediction to make about a virus already ripping through every continent at a time when testing (especially in the U.S.) was woefully inadequate.
But Trump back then, like his then-lionized, now-disgraced rival Cuomo, was operating in an environment exponentially more impoverished, in terms of both knowledge and mitigation strategies, than what public officials enjoy now. The one-shot vaccination rate for American adults was not 86 percent (as it is as this magazine goes to press) but 0 percent. We were still being reminded to wash our hands several times a day for 20 seconds at a time and implored to studiously avoid touching our faces. And perhaps because the idea of government dictating most human activity outside the home was then still novel, politicians tended to tether restrictions to specific metrics. (Cuomo's "flatten the curve" mantra referred to the trajectory of hospitalizations vs. the hard number of hospital beds.) Immediate-term discomforts were routinely sold with visions of long-term relief.
"If everyone makes…these critical changes and sacrifices now," Trump said on "Slow the Spread" day, as a phalanx of top public health officials looked on, "we will rally together as one nation, and we will defeat the virus, and we're going to have a big celebration all together. With several weeks of focused action, we can turn the corner and turn it quickly."
As the families of 800,000 dead Americans can grimly attest, no such corners were ever turned. Yet what has replaced those naive and prematurely optimistic projections is something no less cruel.
Benchmarks for lifting restrictions have been serially rewritten or quietly dropped, often with little explanation. Major policy promises have been made and broken within the same week. And you can't just blame the capriciousness on the shifting viral facts on the ground—bureaucrats have been agonizingly slow to recognize advances in knowledge that support policy loosening yet lightning-fast when reacting to any new source of fear. It took the Biden administration and his fellow Democrats in New York no time at all to put the clampdown on the omicron variant, but it took the CDC and most coastal state governments more than a year to internalize that people are not catching COVID-19 outdoors.
By making a zig-zagging series of arbitrary and far-reaching edicts, officials have squandered public trust in allegedly neutral scientific institutions and effectively abandoned persuasion for coercion. Instead of a light at the end of the tunnel—or even endemic coping at the end of pandemic panic—we're being offered a future of politicians reluctantly handing out a carrot or two before reaching once again for the stick.
The 1-2 Punch in the Mouth
"Everybody has a plan," former heavyweight boxer Mike Tyson famously said, "until they get punched in the mouth." Not only did COVID-19 punch millions of people in the mouth, but government reaction to the virus proved a second blow from which scores of millions of businesses and families have been painfully slow to recover.
In December 2020, Gavin Newsom, California's Democratic governor, banned outdoor dining in regions where available hospital ICU capacity was below 15 percent. A judge opined (accurately) within a week that the policy was "not grounded in science, evidence, or logic." Newsom then rescinded the order seven weeks later without the threshold having been met in most of the state.
De Blasio shut down New York City public schools in November 2020 because the rate of positive tests among all New Yorkers had risen above 3 percent, even though that community spread threshold was far below those recommended by international health authorities, and weekly tests inside school buildings were showing a miniscule positivity rate of 0.18 percent. The mayor removed that consideration for elementary schools 10 days later and for middle schools and high schools four months later. Science!
Imagine being a landlord during the past two years. First, COVID suddenly increases the chances that your tenants will be unable to pay their rent and prompts millions of renegotiated leases. Then, six months later, the Trump administration makes the absurd and facially unconstitutional decision to put the CDC in charge of enforcing a federal moratorium on evictions. Set aside for a moment that gross violation of property rights, and visualize instead what it must have been like to try to make any plan at all about residential real estate.
On June 24, 2021, the CDC made what it described as "the final extension of the moratorium," pushing it out to July 31. At an August 2 White House press briefing, Psaki announced that "CDC Director Rochelle Walensky and her team have been unable to find legal authority for a new, targeted eviction moratorium." Literally the next day, the CDC announced a new, targeted eviction moratorium covering 90 percent of the country. (The Supreme Court would at the end of month swat that reversal down.)
With the exception of the occasional court ruling, governmental bodies have largely given up on the idea that there is any limiting principle to their vast new pandemic powers. Relatedly, they no longer sell today's restrictions as a ticket to tomorrow's freedoms. Whenever a new wave forms, politicians brace constituents for a quick slap now to put off yet another mouth-punch later.
Hochul portrayed her December mask-and-vaccine crackdown as a way to "prevent business disruption"; de Blasio sold his new mandates by saying, "We cannot let those restrictions come back. We cannot have shutdowns here in New York City. We've got to keep moving forward."
Vaccinations have helped decouple infections from hospitalization and death, especially with the more infectious but less lethal omicron variant. Yet elites kept focusing on case rates instead of serious illness, sowing panic and clampdowns in the process. "Massachusetts is the most vaccinated state in the country and yet here we are in a surge of COVID that is just as bad as where we were last year at this point," University of Massachusetts Memorial Health Care President Eric Dickson said in an NBC Nightly News scare story in December. At the time of Dickson's startling claim, the Bay State's seven-day average of deaths was 17, compared to 51 the year before.
All of which contributes to the suspicion that governmental interventions will just stretch out forever. "It is good policy and practice to establish off-ramps for interventions that aren't meant to be permanent," Johns Hopkins epidemiologist Jennifer Nuzzo wrote in November 2021. "We should be able to answer what conditions would enable an end."
But politicians and public health officials, particularly in Democratic-controlled institutions, are increasingly unable to spell out any such conditions. For them there is no end in sight.
Ripping the Mask Off
The first vaccine shots for 5- to 11-year-olds were made available November 3. On November 5 came reports that a new therapeutic from Pfizer preliminarily demonstrated a remarkable ability to prevent serious illness and death in people already sick from COVID. That same day, Walensky chose to release an "Ask the Expert" video replying to the question, "Why do I still need to wear a mask?"
"The evidence is clear," responded the country's highest-ranking public health scientist. "Masks can help prevent the spread of COVID-19 by reducing your chance of infection by more than 80 percent, whether it's an infection from the flu, from the coronavirus, or even just the common cold. In combination with other steps, like getting your vaccination, hand washing, and keeping physical distance, wearing your mask is an important step you can take to keep us all healthy."
It was a breathtakingly irresponsible remark.
For two years, as the country has engaged in bitterly partisan and intensely moralistic debates over nonpharmaceutical interventions (NPIs)—masking, social distancing, business closures—the single greatest difference maker by far in blunting the lethal impact of the virus has been vaccination. Unvaccinated Americans were 10 to 20 times more likely to die from COVID-19 in fall 2021 than those who had received their shots.
Yet here was Walensky, the very week immunization became available to most elementary school kids, putting vaccination on the same list as the mostly (and rightfully) forgotten NPIs of hand washing and social distancing, in order to counteract any possible erosion in support for a far inferior NPI. By relegating the vaccine to the status of an afterthought, not only did the CDC director snuff out hope among many parents that their children's masks will ever come off, but she also butchered the science.
There does not exist a study showing masks to reduce wearers' COVID infectiousness by anything close to 80 percent. In fact, most studies conducted at that time had not even found the vaccines to be 80 percent effective at stopping transmission in the delta era (although they did better at stopping symptomatic cases and hospitalizations). Choosing the arrival of pediatric vaccines as an opportunity to greatly exaggerate the effectiveness of face coverings sent the implicit message to parents that no amount of compliance will free their kids from masks.
In a tweet promoting the video, Walensky touted the non-COVID virtues of wearing face coverings forever. "Masks," she wrote, "also help protect from other illnesses like common cold and flu." There was a time when having a smiling government doctor suggest open-ended masking for cold and flu seasons would have been seen as too implausibly authoritarian.
Yet when the CDC talks, governments in the kinds of places where people have "In this house, we believe in science" yard signs tend to rubber-stamp the recommendations. As of mid-December, 15 states had mask mandates for K-12 schools; all 15 voted for Biden in November 2020. (The two states with also problematic school-mask-mandate bans both voted for Trump.) In New York, children 2 and older are required by law to wear masks all day long in any public or private school or daycare setting, despite being in the age cohort with the lowest COVID hospitalization rate, and despite the fact that their teachers must be vaccinated by law. (The vaccinated Hochul, who at age 63 is much more vulnerable to COVID than is an unvaccinated 4-year-old, has infuriated her critics by appearing in countless social media photos indoors, amid crowds, unmasked.)
Colorado, a purple state with a libertarian-leaning Democratic governor, has taken a considerably different approach. "There was a time when there was no vaccine, and masks were all we had, and we needed to wear them," Democratic Gov. Jared Polis told Colorado Public Radio in December. "The truth is we now have highly effective vaccines that work far better than masks. If you wear a mask, it does decrease your risk of getting COVID, and that's a good thing to do indoors around others. But if you get COVID and you are still unvaccinated, the case is just as bad as if you were not wearing a mask. Everybody had more than enough opportunity to get vaccinated….At this point, if you haven't been vaccinated, it's really your own darn fault." Was that so hard?
For the rest of the country, the scenes playing out in restrictionist states look alien, dystopian: kids shivering while eating lunch outside in frigid Portland, Oregon; high schoolers in New York City (where the positive COVID rate among regularly tested unvaccinated kids was less than 0.3 percent this fall) still holding debate tournaments on Zoom; glum TV commercials warning parents that "without the vaccine, when your child's teammates take the field, they'll miss out. Or when their friends go off to the movies, a concert, or get a bite to eat, your teen will miss out."
Asked about some of those images in December, White House spokeswoman Psaki replied, "I will tell you, I have a 3-year-old who goes to school, sits outside for snacks and lunch, wears a mask inside, and it's no big deal to him….These are steps that schools are taking to keep kids safe."
Yet the evidence that Psaki's kid is actually safer because of such precautions has proven damnably difficult for the CDC to produce. America's school masking guidance is a global outlier—the World Health Organization recommends against masking children aged 5 and younger, and only a handful of countries in the European Union were masking elementary school students in fall 2021. In trying to persuade the public that it's actually rational and prudent, the country's public health agency has never once cited a masking study that included a meaningful control group. Officials are operating on intuition, and as a result tens of millions of children are degrading their physical comfort, social development, and language acquisition. All to avoid contracting and spreading a virus they are far less susceptible to than are vaccinated adults.
Misrepresenting science to produce a preferred policy outcome is a terrible way to build trust during a pandemic. Adding to that sense of suspicion is the fact that the CDC at the beginning of the pandemic actively downplayed the effectiveness of masks, out of worry that scared consumers would hoard the then-scarce supply of medical-quality protective equipment needed by doctors and nurses. "Seriously people—STOP BUYING MASKS!" tweeted then–Surgeon General Jerome Adams on February 29, 2020. "They are NOT effective in preventing [the] general public from catching #Coronavirus, but if healthcare providers can't get them to care for sick patients, it puts them and our communities at risk!"
The Biden administration was supposed to bring more scientific rigor into the building, yet Walensky has repeatedly massaged research findings to fit her policy desires for Americans to be swathed in real and metaphorical prophylactics. The CDC dropped its guidance for outdoor masking only in April 2021, and even then only among vaccinated people. The moderately populated state of Washington, with its spectacular forests, coastline, and mountains, still has an outdoor mask requirement.
As America braced for the omicron wave before Christmas, the blue-state mandates started to emerge: vaccine passports for Philadelphia, booster-shot requirements at several elite universities, a renewed indoor mask mandate in California. "The imperative is to get through this winter surge," Newsom said. "And to do so in a way where we come out the other side and we have a chance to reevaluate."
Schools in heavily Democratic districts—Cleveland, Ohio; Newark, New Jersey; West Chicago, Illinois; Prince George's County, Maryland—preemptively responded to the omicron surge after Christmas break by once again shifting to remote-only learning. At the Brooklyn elementary school that my first-grader is zoned for, teachers staged a post-break sickout that precipitated a last-minute closure. "We are demanding," they wrote in a letter to outraged parents, "the city and our union take…actions to stop the spread."
So just a few more weeks to stop the spread. Or months. Or years.