News Update

How the Omicron variant ignited new battles and changed pandemic politics

After two years of venomous partisan feuds over the crisis, new battles are springing up all over the country.
  • A New York state indoor mask mandate is back in effect after an appeals court judge issued a stay on a lower court ruling that struck it down. Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul praised the court for temporarily blocking a decision previously celebrated by conservatives for “siding with common sense.”
  • Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis is castigating the federal government for cutting off two monoclonal antibody therapies because they don’t work against Omicron. The White House said this latest pandemic eruption from the GOP rising star was “crazy.”
  • Virginia’s new Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin issued an executive order that allows parents to opt their children out of local school district mask mandates. While he campaigned on parental choice, he also said before taking office that he would not block local officials from implementing their own rules. But by undercutting the local districts, he has now effectively taken a turn toward ex-President Donald Trump’s base, while technically keeping his word. Some school districts and parents are fighting back in court — but even an eventual loss by the commonwealth’s new governor could establish his credentials with the party’s populist grassroots. And since he’s constitutionally barred from a second consecutive term, Youngkin is free from reelection worries and can look to a possible political future.
  • The White House on Tuesday gave up the fight for its rule requiring vaccines and testing for employees of large firms after the conservative Supreme Court struck them down and removed one of President Joe Biden’s key weapons in the fight against Omicron and any future variants.
  • And one of the modern GOP’s original disruptors, former vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, was in the headlines after allegedly flouting Manhattan vaccine mandates in an indoor restaurant — and then testing positive for the virus, which has delayed the defamation trial against The New York Times that had brought her to the city.

A defining feature of conservatism

The pandemic was always destined to pour oil on America’s scorched-earth politics. In no other Western country is the tussle between government power and individual rights so acute. It’s been in America’s DNA since before the revolution and has been constantly aggravated by the extremities of a two-year crisis ever since Trump denied the true peril of the virus, and tried to force the entire country open at the height of its deadly first wave.
The confrontation over Covid-19 precautions has now become a defining feature of the conservative movement. It channels the fervent resistance to governance and the hatred of East Coast elites — in this case public health officials — that has long inflamed Trump’s base. That means any GOP politician with aspirations in presidential politics must get right with the party’s most fervent supporters by adopting their pandemic dogma like resistance to masking, skepticism of vaccines and claims of tyrannical federal power.
Cleveland suburbs offer window into how pandemic policies could shape midterm electionCleveland suburbs offer window into how pandemic policies could shape midterm election
The willingness of Republican up-and-comers like DeSantis, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem and now Youngkin to play to the conservative media gallery on the pandemic has boosted careers. But it’s also a path that has cost thousands of lives. Most patients dying from the Omicron variant right now are unvaccinated. And data shows that the risk of dying of Covid-19 is higher in red states.
But if the Omicron wave becomes the final blast of the pandemic, the costs for political leaders who resist government and public health guidelines for partisan purposes also figure to wane. And Republicans with their eyes on higher office may be even more tempted to chalk up points that can be cashed in during future primaries.

A new risk calculation

The latest infectious variant has also introduced a new dimension into pandemic politics.
Generally less lethal for the fully vaccinated and boosted, but far more transmissible, Omicron has blurred ideological lines on pandemic precautions. As the new political clashes play out, and elected officials try to stop their health systems from becoming overwhelmed, Americans are grasping for a sweet spot of acceptable risk.
Senators propose bipartisan legislation to bolster pandemic preparedness and examine US Covid-19 responseSenators propose bipartisan legislation to bolster pandemic preparedness and examine US Covid-19 response
Many people — at least those without young kids who cannot be vaccinated yet — are taking a second look at tough anti-Covid-19 regimens and limits they have placed on their behavior outside the home. The partisan divide between liberals who are more likely to adhere to government restrictions and conservatives who are constantly pushing to do away with them may become less defined. And the desperation of parents to keep schools open after two years of their kids’ childhoods ripped away is adding an even more emotive note to the question of masking in schools — on both sides of the ideological divide.
Republicans are not alone in gaming out the political implications of a pandemic that the President had hoped would be history by now after he vowed to shut down the virus while he was a candidate. The hopes of Biden and his Democrats in fast approaching midterm elections in November may rely on a swift economic turnaround after months of Covid-related blows to growth and spikes in inflation. Only an unexpectedly speedy return to normal this summer will allow Biden to sidestep attacks from Republicans who are exploiting public exhaustion with the virus and its economic blowback as part of an election argument that the President and his party are out of touch and incompetent.

A Covid-19 showdown in the Sunshine State

DeSantis’ defiance of federal government public health advice has likely made him a top contender in the Republican 2024 presidential primary field — if Trump doesn’t run and presuming the governor wins his own reelection race this year. On Monday, he slammed the Biden administration after the US Food and Drug Administration revised emergency use authorization for two monoclonal antibody treatments for Covid-19. The move effectively meant that the therapies cannot be used since they were found to be less ineffective against Omicron, which is causing almost all infections in the US.
But DeSantis, who has consistently chosen politics over science cited by federal officials during the pandemic, claimed that the decision was made “without a shred of clinical data” and deprived Floridians of effective treatments. Hitting back, White House press secretary Jen Psaki accused DeSantis of being part of a cadre of politicians and social media commentators on the right who advocate pseudoscience.
Florida shuts down all monoclonal antibody treatment sites after FDA decision to limit use of certain treatments not proven effective against OmicronFlorida shuts down all monoclonal antibody treatment sites after FDA decision to limit use of certain treatments not proven effective against Omicron
“Let’s just take a step back here just to realize how crazy this is,” Psaki told reporters on Tuesday.
“What the FDA is making clear is that these treatments … that the governor is fighting over — do not work against Omicron, and they have side effects,” she said. “We have sent them 71,000 doses of treatments that are effective against Omicron, and are effective also against Delta, and they are still advocating for treatments that don’t work.”
The former senior White House adviser for Covid response, Andy Slavitt, warned on CNN “Newsroom” on Tuesday that the latest stand by DeSantis was “consistent with the kind of quack armchair medicine that politicians have been practicing throughout the pandemic.” He also criticized the Florida governor for not doing more to advocate booster injections — which are unpopular with sectors of the conservative base even though Trump has spoken out in their support and they vastly lessen the chances of hospitalization and death from Covid-19.

Controversy in New York

The stay granted by a judge that allows New York’s indoor mask mandate to temporarily remain in force might help ease some confusion about changing coronavirus mitigation measures in the state. Hochul introduced the rule requiring masks in indoor settings in the state as part of intense efforts to slow the spread of Omicron. A judge on Monday ruled that the state’s Department of Health did not have the authority to enact such a mandate without approval from the legislature. But New York Attorney General Letitia James’ office filed a motion to stay the ruling. More court hearings on the case will take place on Friday.
Controversy over Palin’s visit to New York, meanwhile, injected yet another partisan twist into the argument over the power of governments to regulate the individual behavior of American citizens.
The former Alaska governor was spotted on Saturday dining at a Manhattan restaurant called Elio’s — something the restaurant’s manager Luca Guaitolini confirmed to CNN. Current guidelines in New York City require people over the age of 12 be vaccinated in order to dine indoors. CNN has reached out to an attorney for Palin to comment on the allegation that she dined indoors while unvaccinated. But there has so far been no response. The case has prompted questions over whether restaurant owners are properly examining vaccination status. Guaitolini told CNN that he was not working on Saturday but was told by the duty manager that he checked 150 to 200 vaccination cards that night.

Biden admits defeat

In another development on Tuesday, Biden withdrew the vaccine and testing regulation blocked by the Supreme Court earlier this month.
The regulation required businesses with 100 or more employees to ensure their workers are fully vaccinated or to undergo regular testing and wear face coverings at work. Conservatives criticized the regulation as an infringement on individual liberties and a needless impediment for the businesses themselves. Biden had seen the new rule as his best hope of getting vaccine skeptics to finally get their shots and of ending the pandemic.
But in a huge victory for conservatives, the Supreme Court ruled that the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration had overstepped its authority. The ruling was the latest sign of how the right-wing majority enshrined on the nation’s top bench by Trump could reshape American life and of how the Covid-19 crisis is laying down precedents for the extent of presidential authority in a national emergency.
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