Democrats turn against mask mandates as Covid landscape and voter attitudes shift

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WASHINGTON — When President Joe Biden gives his State of the Union speech on Tuesday, the mask mandate will be gone in the Capitol, reflecting a stark nationwide shift for Democrats against the public safety rule that has fueled a red-versus-blue culture war.

Behind the shift is a blend of science and political science.

The Covid-19 landscape is improving, with vaccines and booster shots easily available and proving highly effective at preventing severe illness or death. The Centers For Disease Control and Prevention say 70 percent of Americans reside in areas with low or medium Covid levels. All 50 states have eased or eliminated mask mandates, and the White House formally ditched its requirement Monday.

After vanquishing Donald Trump by promising to get the virus under control, Democrats are now positioning themselves to declare victory against Covid ahead of a tough midterm election, amid recent polling data showing that Americans are less fearful of Covid-related illness and eager to return to normal life.

"We’ve beaten Covid. Time to take off the masks. Time to get back to life. Let’s open up our businesses. And let’s — everyone go back to having as normal a life as we can," Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., said Friday on HBO’s “Real Time With Bill Maher.”

"It's OK to succeed," he said. "There are some people that are still afraid of doing that, but we can’t continue living this life."

'Moved out of crisis mode'

The message is backed by advice from Biden’s polling firm, Impact Research, which studied voter attitudes to Covid and found that most Americans are "worn out" by the restrictions and "have personally moved out of crisis mode."

In a Feb. 16 memo, the firm told Democrats to take "the win" on Covid, warning that by 49 percent to 24 percent, Americans are more concerned about it causing economic harm than infecting them or a family member, and that far more parents and teachers worry about learning loss than illness for their kids.

"The more we talk about the threat of COVID and onerously restrict people’s lives because of it, the more we turn them against us and show them we’re out of touch with their daily realities," Impact Research’s Molly Murphy and Brian Stryker wrote in the memo, which was viewed by NBC News. They warned that if Democrats continue to emphasize Covid precautions over learning to live in a world with the virus, "they risk paying dearly for it in November."

Republicans, who have long rebelled against government mask mandates, say Democrats are flip-flopping for political reasons.

"Democrats realized they were increasingly out of step with most people and in many cases appeared drunk on power and untethered from the latest scientific data," said Matt Wolking, a Republican strategist who worked on Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s come-from-behind campaign.

Wolking said that in the 2022 election, "Republicans aren't going to let voters forget that Democrats kept schools closed, kept kids masked, fired front-line workers for making their own health care decisions, and shut down small businesses — all while getting caught on camera enjoying their own lives mask free."

'Hiding under the bed'

Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, D-N.Y., the chair of the House Democratic campaign arm, said that Republicans were wrong to oppose masks early on, and that if the politics have changed it’s only because "conditions are different."

“If you and I were driving late at night and you said turn your headlights off, I would say that’s a bad and dangerous idea. If at 9 o’clock the next morning, you said turn the headlights off, I’d agree with you. Doesn’t mean you were right the first time,” Maloney said.

Still, the cause has faced some skepticism from Democrats, who wonder if they’re jumping the gun at a time when more than 1,600 Americans are still dying every day from Covid in the latest seven-day average by the CDC.

“It’s very hard for a lay person to tell. I think this has to be done on a medical basis. And what I’m surprised about is that there’s so little medical backup for that,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. “I don’t want to do something that is incorrect,” she added. “I think we ought to follow medical opinion.”

And a debate continues to rage over mask mandates in schools, which have become a new battleground in the culture wars over Covid measures as well as the teaching of race and U.S. history.

Maloney strongly endorsed the end of restrictions last month in his home state of New York, while acknowledging there were tradeoffs.

"Look, all sorts of bad things can happen but I don’t believe in hiding under the bed," he said. "It's time to get back to our lives."