The news that the District of Columbia would be again "dialing back" its indoor mask mandate made me think, of all things, of a Star Wars teaser trailer.
In 2014, after a hiatus from the silver screen, Star Wars was returning, and the The Force Awakens short teaser gave a glimpse of what was to come, allowing superfans to break things down shot-by-shot in hopes of gleaning any information about the pending JJ Abrams-helmed entry.
"There has been an awakening. Have you felt it?"
Over the last two weeks, I have heard Supreme Leader Snoke (ugh) echoing on social media. Not in the context of The Force, but around the push to loosen COVID-19 restrictions.
I've seen a number of right-of-center commentators and politicians making variations of the same argument:
"The science hasn't changed, the polling has," is the phrase I've seen over and over again. The implication is that the seemingly sudden change-of-tune among many luminaries (largely on the Democratic side of the aisle) who are now pressing for an end to universal masking, mandates, etc. is that some internal memo has gone out on The Left indicating panic about the political fallout of COVID-19 restrictions. The victory of Glenn Youngkin in Virginia only added fuel to the idea that COVID restrictionism was politically toxic and would lead to Democratic annihilation come November 2022.
But as someone who follows the polling on this, I'm not convinced the turn on things like mask mandates has been as sharp or as clear as is suggested by this "there has been an awakening" kind of theory.
Rather, the turn away from COVID restrictions seems less about them having become deeply unpopular overnight, but rather that public opinion has soured on our ability to win the fight against COVID at all.
The tone of COVID-restriction discourse has changed fairly quickly in some corners. A number of things restriction-skeptics have said for a while (outdoor masking mostly doesn't do much, masking children may have more downsides than benefits, and so on) are being more openly embraced as fact by former COVID-restrictionists. I remember having Derek Thompson on my SiriusXM radio show in spring of 2021 to discuss his great piece at The Atlantic exploring the science of outdoor masking and it felt like he was circulating samizdat. Just weeks ago, progressive opinion writer Michelle Goldberg called for kids to be allowed to attend school without masking. When former Planned Parenthood head Dr. Leana Wen declared that cloth masks are essentially "facial decorations," it was received with a loud "FINALLY" in many right-of-center corners. (Her point is that this means people should actually be wearing N95s or their equivalent, a higher bar than most masking requirements currently specify.)
You're not wrong for feeling a wee bit of whiplash. Oh, now it can be told? I see from my conservative friends. And there are some efforts that are primed and ready to harness the very real spreading frustration around COVID-19 policy inconsistencies, particularly given the disparity between the rules children must live under and those luminaries enjoy at events like playoff football games and galas. (Important disclosure: I did a poll for N2 America in the pre-COVID times, and you can find it here. In fact, it was the last presentation I gave in-person before the world shut down!)
But I think overall the picture of what's driving this shift in tone and policy is more complicated than just "the polls changed". There have been some new revelations, or at least a re-examinations of some pieces of research, such as this incisive critique (again, from The Atlantic) of the CDC's evidence that school mask mandates reduce transmission, or the realization that places with mask mandates haven't fared much better during the Omicron wave than places without.
Moreover, cases are blessedly dropping like a rock. Every week in my Data Digest, I include the latest figures pulled from The New York Times' tracker and the sharp drop in cases, particularly in the last two weeks, has been staggering. We are not in the same situation we were in two weeks ago much less two months ago. So in that respect, the situation has changed, if not the underlying "science."
But I really do want to focus in on this idea that the polls are the reason why, say, Mayor Muriel Bowser is lifting the COVID-19 mask mandate. This all hinges on the idea that large numbers of voters in 92-percent-voted-for-Joe-Biden DC who are pining to be rid of mandates. Are they?
Let's look at the polling on various component parts of the COVID-19 restriction puzzle.
This is the first thing DC is lifting and they are wasting no time doing it. As of tomorrow, the lovely people working at your corner Potbelly won't have to make you dig out your vaccine card in order to let you eat your sandwich in their establishment.
Polling has consistently shown vaccine mandates to be among the least popular of the various public policy mandates around COVID. Asking someone to wear a mask feels less burdensome and intrusive than asking them to get a shot, even if vaccines are far more likely to curb bad COVID outcomes than masks.
Furthermore, the messaging around vaccines has been a bit all over the place. The message that being vaccinated meant you weren't likely to transmit COVID was squashed by the Delta variant and subsequent research, the message that two doses meant "fully vaccinated" became complicated by requirements around boosters and reports of waning efficacy against infection (though with more robust protection against serious illness) over time.
The bottom line is that most people - including most Republicans! - are "fully vaccinated" by the two-dose definition. While Republicans are the most likely to say they have no intention of being vaccinated, only a third are vaccine hold-outs.
But having the vaccine and supporting a vaccine mandate are two different things. And support for mandates has waned. Just look at the trendline from Monmouth below.
Vaccines may be relatively popular, but vaccine mandates are not so much. nearly 6 in 10 independents in the Monmouth poll oppose such mandates, even while a slim majority of those same independents supports mask mandates.
It is no surprise that as time has worn on, people have begun believe that we have likely maxed out the number of people who are open to getting the vaccine and should no longer make a vaccine mandate a part of public policy. And therefore it is also no surprise that the vaccine mandate is the first thing Mayor Bowser has decided to ditch.
The politics of mask mandates are a bit different, though such mandates are also waning in popularity. As Monmouth notes:
I have no doubt that pushing for a mask mandate in a Republican county in Florida would probably not earn you many plaudits. And indeed, in the Monmouth crosstabs, by a three to one margin Republicans oppose "instituting, or reinstituting, face mask and social distance guidelines in your state at the current time." But a slim majority (51%) of independents say they'd support such requirements, and a whopping 85% of Democrats say they support it too.
Or, take this, from November: my own firm's data on mask mandates in various circumstances, as broken out by political party.
I'm not seeing evidence that large numbers of urban progressives are chomping at the bit to remove their masks. (Or, at least, are comfortable telling pollsters this directly.) Thus again, I say: I don't know that deep-blue area American political figures are rolling back such mandates because their own voters are specifically calling for such mandates to be rolled back. Rather, they may just be responding to growing frustrations around the virus overall.
This is the most compelling datapoint driving the notion that people are absolutely over it and hoping to be freed from whatever restrictions remain. Even progressives who may feel like they can't come out and say to a pollster "I'm ready to stop wearing a mask at Safeway" can at least say they are fed up with everything and ready to move on in a more general sense.
This has been accompanied by a serious atrophying of President Biden's standing on the issue. Take a quick stroll through Real Clear Politics' accounting of every poll asking whether people approve or disapprove of President Biden's handling of the coronavirus; early in his presidency and on the eve of "Hot Vax Summer 2021" his job approval on COVID could touch 70 percent on a good day! Today, not so. Not even close. Polls regularly show his job approval on COVID underwater, meaning disapproval is higher than approval.
As vaccines were rolled out in spring of 2021 and the CDC announced that masking could be rolled back, it felt a bit like the Biden Administration had declared "Mission Accomplished". And two-thirds of Americans agreed! The worst was behind us. But in June 2021, when 63% of Americans in my polling said "the worst was behind us", we had just crossed the grim threshold of 600,000 deaths. Today, we have passed the 900,000 mark.
It's not that Americans think can move on because we won the battle and beat COVID. My polling still shows large and growing numbers people are still worried about getting COVID! It's that they may no longer think we can beat COVID. Some 60% in the Monmouth poll think it will be at least a year, if ever, before we are able to beat back the COVID-19 outbreak, and about a third outright think it will never happen. "Just a few more weeks" of this or that restriction may no longer feel worth the trouble if there's no light at the end of the tunnel. The "just hold out a little longer" message falls flat.
Pre-Omicron, I wrote about how Americans were leaning toward considering COVID an endemic threat versus an emergency; the polling I've done since reaffirms that most think we should treat it more akin to other illnesses that circulate rather than a special emergency.
As Monmouth's polling helpfully notes, people being "over it" does not mean large majorities want to eliminate all restrictions and return to a late-2019 public health posture. But when you have, in the same poll, seven-in-ten people saying they're "ready to move on from COVID" but still a slim majority still supporting mask mandates, something deeper is going on.
General fatigue and frustration may mean public officials are wary of keeping in place restrictions that people fear won't really help us get to "the light at the end of the tunnel" anyway.
After all, no one wants to be seen as leading an ineffective fight in an unwinnable war.
Thanks again for being a reader of Codebook. What do you think is driving the changing politics of COVID-19 restrictions? Hop to the comments to start the discussion.
You can also catch my weekly radio show, "The Trendline", on SiriusXM P.O.T.U.S. Channel 124 airing Saturdays at 10 AM Eastern.
(Cover Photo Credit: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images)