"Neanderthal thinking": Biden blasts Texas, other states for lifting mask mandates

An unfortunate soundbite. From time to time I think of Mike DeWine’s decision early in the pandemic, when the mask wars were just beginning, not to mandate mask-wearing in Ohio. That wasn’t because he didn’t see value in masks, it was because he realized that having the government browbeat mask skeptics about wearing one was apt to make them more resistant to doing so, not less.

Of course, he changed his mind a few months later when he issued a mask mandate anyway in desperation, to try to stem a summer wave of COVID.

But there was sense in his earlier view. Given that most mask skepticism exists on the right and and that righties are more inclined to resist pandemic-era government restrictions, especially when they’re issued by a Democrat (see, e.g., Cuomo, Whitmer, Newsom), having a Democratic president describe Texas’s reopening sans masks as “Neanderthal thinking” is destined to polarize the issue along partisan lines. Which means some righties who were grudgingly wearing their masks as a matter of sound COVID hygiene may be tempted to take them off in the name of defying Sleepy Joe. Especially once populist media begins to amplify this and makes it a rallying cry a la “deplorables.”

Do mask mandates even work? Some evidence suggests that they do but no state was spared a hard winter simply because mask-wearing was the law of the land there. We can safely say that they work at the margins to reduce infections by forcing some people to cover up who otherwise wouldn’t, preventing a few transmissions that otherwise would have happened. And every transmission counts, I’m sure Biden would say, especially at a moment when millions of people are weeks or even days away from being immunized. A mask is a minor inconvenience to save as many lives as possible now that we’re in the home stretch of the pandemic.

But presidential insults will obscure that point rather than clarify it. Especially since anti-mask righties aren’t the only ones guilty of “Neanderthal thinking” on pandemic safety:

“You deserve to die if you don’t follow the CDC’s guidance” is some next-level sociopathic pandemic vindictiveness, a bit like that idiot who used to dress up as the Grim Reaper to taunt Florida beachgoers but nastier. And counterproductive on its own terms, of course, since mass vaccination isn’t a wholly altruistic endeavor. We should want everyone to get immunized not just for humanitarian reasons but because the fewer chains of transmission there are, the fewer chances the virus will have to mutate into a vaccine-resistant strain and find its way back to you or me. If Olby and Moore want to seal Texas off and make it a freefire zone for coronavirus, with 30 million people forced to acquire immunity the old-fashioned way, they’re not going to like how that turns out for the country.

Plus, as various liberals have said to them in reply: Why should the “good” Texans who voted Democratic last year be deprived of the vaccine just because their Republican governor is willing to jump the gun on easing pandemic restrictions?

In lieu of an exit question, read Jim Geraghty on the vaccination math going forward. If we keep up with our pace of around 1.9 million shots per day, we could plausibly have somewhere in the ballpark of 150 million adults or more vaccinated by the end of May. Assume another 75 million Americans have already acquired immunity through infection and we’re talking about the vast, vast majority of adults protected by COVID before summer. The end is near (in a good way). But we probably have tens of thousands of deaths still to endure before we get there.