Masks off? Democrats try for a pandemic pivot

Many in the party are now coming around to what swing-district lawmakers have privately warned for weeks: that the Biden administration needs to drastically rethink its handling of Covid, particularly in the suburbs. Those vulnerable Democrats worry that ugly clashes over masks, school closings and vaccine mandates will crush them in purple districts this fall. But the current shift may be too little, too late to avoid blowback from voters wearied by pandemic whiplash.

Some Democrats are nudging President Joe Biden to do more to ease Covid exhaustion, using his upcoming State of the Union address to announce a “new phase” of living with the virus.

“At this point, I don’t think we’re changing people’s minds,” said Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.), who led the House Democrats’ campaign arm during a rough 2020 cycle, where Democrats lost more than a dozen seats. And Bustos said she backed her own home-state governor’s decision this week to phase out mask requirements: “I just think people are gonna do what they’re gonna do.”

representative Andy Kim (DN.J.) said that “from my standpoint, I’ve been ready for this,” noting that Covid cases have “rapidly decreased” in his state.

Democrats’ public turnaround on mask mandates is a remarkable twist for the party that’s championed a painstakingly careful — though critics have called it too cautious — approach. Just days ago, Georgia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams publicly apologized after a maskless photo of her circulated, taken indoors during a visit with a classroom full of masked children.

It’s also something of an uncomfortable position for House Democrats in particular, whose leadership continues to enforce a mask mandate on the floor with hefty fines for any lawmaker who refuses. Several Democrats said they supported phasing out that mandate, though some said they would continue to wear their masks in the Capitol out of precaution.

A spokesperson for speakers Nancy Pelosi Said the decision on Hill masking would be up to the Office of the Attending Physician, which has offered guidance throughout the pandemic on how to keep members and staff safe in the Capitol.

Republicans, meanwhile, say they’ve taken careful notice of Democrats’ public shift on mask mandates back home.

“It’s not based on science; it’s based on politics. I think people are fed up, and the Dems are seeing the polling,” said Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.).

But some Democrats have urged a relaxation of pandemic rules for weeks now. As the nation staggers into its third year with Covid, party moderates have been especially vocal in preaching a kind of “new normal.”

The centrist New Democrats Coalition hosted former Biden adviser Zeke Emanuel — brother of another former House Democratic campaign chief, Rahm Emanuel — at a meeting on the topic last week.

representative Ami Bera (D-Calif.), a member of that group and a physician, has penned a soon-to-be-published op-ed for his local paper, arguing that it’s time to declare the end of the “pandemic” phase of the virus. In an interview, Bera said there’s been “fair criticism” aimed at both the White House and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for their “overly cautious” approach.

Still, Bera insisted that the party’s shift on masks wasn’t rooted in politics. He argued that vaccines, not masks, are the most effective tool available against the virus.

“I think of it [as] less of a political issue, but I think it’s where the public is,” Bera said. “A lot of purple districts are suburban districts. And in suburban districts, there is a prominent feeling of wanting to get our lives back.”

Not every Democrat is echoing the centrists who welcome eased mask mandates. Many in the party still insist they can’t simply declare victory when the number of virus cases is still higher than it was under Covid’s Delta wave. These Democrats point out that rules should not simply vanish while the Covid vaccine remains unavailable to children under five years old.

White House officials, too, have been hesitant to reach that phase amid such uncertainty, though they’ve signaled they plan to make that shift eventually.

Many of the party’s most endangered incumbents aren’t waiting.

“We’re never going to risk down to zero. But there’s also a risk of not letting our kids have normal lives,” said Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.), who faces a tough reelection battle this fall.

Another swing district Democrat, Rep. Suzanne Wild (D-Pa.), said they worried people are so exhausted by the pandemic that they’re losing trust in government — presenting a huge risk if the US is hit by a more dangerous viral variant in the future.

“Millions of people haven’t been affected at all by Omicron.” Wild said. “We have to recognize that. We can’t live in this state in perpetuity.”

Olivia Beavers contributed to this report.

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