Illinois, New York and Rhode Island on Wednesday became the latest Democratic-led states to announce forthcoming changes to their statewide mask requirements, as more blue states begin to lift restrictions nearly two years into the COVID-19 pandemic.
The announcements from Governors J. B. Pritzker in Illinois, Kathy Hochul in New York and Daniel McKee in Rhode Island came just after California, Connecticut, Delaware, New Jersey and Oregon governors said they would bein the coming weeks.
Taken together, the policy changes mark a turning point for Democratic governors who have kept COVID restrictions in place in schools and reinstated some requirements more broadly amid the Omicron surge. And they have gone ahead of the Biden administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which continued Wednesday to recommend masking in areas of high or substantial transmission.
Governors have cited the downturn in positive cases and hospitalizations in their states after the initial Omicron wave.
“The numbers are coming down and it’s time to adapt,” Hochul told reporters on Wednesday, as she announced that New York’s statewide requirement on masking and proof of vaccinations will expire on Thursday. Local areas or businesses can make decisions to keep requirements in place, and the state will still have masking requirements in state-regulated health care facilities, correctional facilities, public transportation and schools.
The governors are “very clear that public health and the science is what dictates the policies…The case counts are going down; warmer weather is coming up,” said Democratic Governors Association communications director David Turner. “Everybody realizes they need to provide some light at the end of the tunnel, for some sense of normalcy.”
The changes come amid nationwide COVID-related fatigue. A recent Monmouth University poll, for example, found that 70% of Americans said it is time to “accept that COVID is here to stay and we just need to get on with our lives.” That included 89% of Republicans, 71% of independents and 47% of Democrats.
New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy acknowledged that sentiment when he said Monday he would lift the state’s school mask mandate on March 7.
“We have to learn how to live with COVID,” he said.
Some Democratic leaders are cheering the change in message, particularly in a midterm election year in which they are already facing headwinds. Such elections are traditionally viewed as a check on the administration and party in power, and President Biden’s campaign pledge to get the virus under control could be a vulnerability for Democrats if current conditions and sentiments persist.
New York Representative Sean Maloney, who chairs the committee tasked with electing Democrats to the House, previewed what could become a rallying cry for the party: “Democrats’ plan to fight COVID is working – cases are down & vaccines are widely available. Now, it’s time to give people their lives back,” he tweeted Wednesday. “With science as our guide, we’re ready to start getting back to normal.”
Republican governors have largely avoided implementing statewide requirements, making the shift in Democratic states more pronounced. Some Democratic governors, like Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, have encouraged masks, but left it up to local leaders and school districts to make those decisions after rescinding requirements last year.
Republicans have capitalized on instances where Democrats have taken off their masks in public. Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams apologized Tuesday after appearing maskless in a photo with masked school children.
“Joe Biden and Democrats have politicized ‘the science’ and are now lying about their shifting views on masks, mandates, and lockdowns,” Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel said in a statement.
Masking in schools remains a politically fraught issue, particularly as both parties vie for suburban voters, and will be the next key focal point as states begin to relax mandates. In addition to Murphy’s order in New Jersey, Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont said that he’s backing a plan to eliminate his state’s school mask requirement on February 28. McKee will lift Rhode Island’s statewide school mask mandate on March 4.
Hochul said there is a “very strong possibility” that New York’s school mask mandate could end on March 7, and will revisit the guidance in early March after students return from their midwinter break. Pritzker lifted the state’s indoor mask mandate, but is leaving the school mandate in place for now.
In a more apparent sign of how the politics around Covid restrictions may be changing, 10 Virginia state Democrats joined Republicans this week in approving legislation that would prohibit local school boards from imposing mask mandates, beginning in July. Earlier this year, Virginia Republican Governor Glenn Younkin, whose election in November dealt a blow to Democrats, issued an executive order to allow parents to opt out of school mask mandates, but the order has been mired in legal challenges. The action by the legislature is considered a work-around.
The White House said Wednesday that it continues its outreach to and coordination with governors, when asked about the states seeming to lead the federal government in moving to the next phase of living with the coronavirus. “We know that in different areas of the country, cases have fallen more significantly, and this will lead to different approaches and different timing,” said Jeff Zients, the administration’s Covid response coordinator.