“With an average of more than 600 Americans still dying of the disease each week, the outbreak is by no means over,” Politico reported in May. “But Thursday’s developments mark a politically significant milestone.” The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s reluctant acknowledgment of the COVID vaccines’ efficacy led them to admit that the fully immunized could forego masking. The announcement was “genuinely celebrated” by all of Washington. But the Biden White House, in particular, was overcome with a sense of “relief and jubilation.” The president campaigned on his pledge to all but conquer the virus, and he had delivered. “Today may be remembered in history as V-C Day,” Democratic strategist Paul Begala predicted.
But the nation’s public health apparatus did not join in the celebrations. Although the CDC denied the allegation, the administration was charged with bowing to “political pressure” to resume normal life on a premature timeline. And as COVID-19’s Delta variant became the dominant strain of the disease, the administration’s public health officials began to undermine the administration’s COVID guidance. They advised the public to adhere instead to the stricter guidelines promulgated by independent advocacy groups over those produced by the administration they served.
Ultimately, what amounted to a public pressure campaign to force the CDC to reverse course succeeded. And yet, the CDC’s recommendation that most of the country restore masking mandates still doesn’t go far enough. At least, not according to leaked documents from the agency published in the press on Friday. The document, which nevertheless concedes that the vaccines remain 88 percent effective at preventing symptomatic COVID illness, recommends “universal masking as a source of control and prevention”—not the localized mask mandates based on relative levels of community transmission which pertain currently.
What we’re witnessing is a clash of two competing priorities. First, the Biden administration’s need to contain and control the disease that has yielded so much death and necessitated so many onerous restrictions on social and economic life. Second, there’s a first-term president’s prime directive: The need to convince the public that it is better off now than it was under the last administration. Today, the former objective is winning out, but at the unmistakable expense of the latter.
This week, Goldman Sachs economist Ronnie Walker wrote that the rise of the Delta variant and the fears around it along with the resumption of localized mitigation mandates will put downward pressure on the economic recovery. Though “appetite for new government-mandated restrictions appears low,” he wrote, the reimposition of measures like mask mandates and a genuine concern about the prospect of COVID’s uncontrolled spread would keep “COVID fears alive,” thus “delaying a full recovery.” On Thursday, second-quarter GDP numbers appeared to confirm Walker’s prediction. Economists predicted 8.4 percent growth as the economy continued to recover from the doldrums of the pandemic. We got just 6.5 percent growth.
The mainstream press put a happy spin on this gigantic miss, but the Biden White House cannot be thrilled. Not only did GDP growth fail to meet expectations, but weekly jobless claims and pending home sales also proved underwhelming. “Employers have been complaining about labor shortages,” New York Times analyst Neil Irwin observed, “and if the renewed risk of illness makes even vaccinated adults reluctant to enter or re-enter the workforce, those shortages could worsen.” Consumer spending and confidence haven’t been shaken by the new variant’s emergence yet. But if more draconian mitigation strategies are implemented or if schools don’t fully reopen in the fall, the downward pressure on the economic recovery could intensify.
The return of the virus right in the middle of Joe Biden’s “summer of freedom” has already started to erode the public’s confidence in his administration’s competence. According to FiveThirtyEight’s average of public opinion polls, Joe Biden’s handling of the virus has enjoyed the approval of roughly 62-63 percent of the public since early April. Public opinion has begun to take a noticeable turn toward the skeptical. On July 1, Biden’s average approval rating regarding his response to COVID declined by three points while his disapproval rating increased by two points. Nothing seismic, but movement that could herald the beginning of a trend.
As NBC News reporter Shannon Pettypiece noted, ABC News/Ipsos pollsters are tracking a staggering reversal in the public’s attitude. In April, 64 percent of respondents were optimistic about what the next year would bring. Just 36 percent were pessimistic. Today, 55 percent of American adults told pollsters they were pessimistic about the near-term future while just 45 percent expressed optimism.
If former FDA Director Scott Gottlieb is correct and we are nearer to the end of the Delta wave than we are the beginning, this might just turn out to be a blip. What’s more, the president can claim to have once again subdued the virus, and voters might even believe him. But the risks associated with a resumption of masking mandates that are not uniformly enforced or observed have not been adequately considered by this White House.
Predictably, indoor masking mandates are being adhered to mostly by those who do not benefit from them; namely, the fully vaccinated. The areas of the country that are not enforcing these mitigation measures overlap with places where test positivity is highest. We know that the unvaccinated do not regard the threat of COVID as sufficient to justify vaccination against it, to say nothing of the basic mitigation strategies like masking. It is reasonable to assume that vaccine holdouts will selectively patronize venues that do not have mitigation measures in place. In sum, we could be herding the unvaccinated into spaces where they are most likely to transmit the virus to one another. We should be doing the exact opposite: Integrating the unvaccinated into the much larger vaccinated population and reducing the likelihood that an infected individual will transmit the virus to another host.
If that is this policy’s result, a self-perpetuating cycle could reemerge. Pressure on lawmakers to extend the policies that are exacerbating the labor shortage will increase. The public’s pessimism will only grow worse, and its faith in Biden’s competence will continue to decline. This White House’s handling of the virus will look more and more like a failure, and voters rarely head to the polls to reward failure.