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Blue on blue: Dems on D.C. City Council beg Dem mayor not to lift indoor mask mandate

AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

Reading about this, it occurred to me that this is the way the pandemic is destined to end in every blue jurisdiction, no? Republicans are already done with COVID for the most part but Democrats will splinter into different camps of risk-aversion as the virus recedes. Some will want to ease restrictions as conditions begin to improve, some will insist on durable improvement before easing restrictions, some will plant their flag in “pandemic forever” territory.

Dems have managed to mostly avoid those disagreements to date, uniting against what they perceived as GOP recklessness in wanting to reopen too soon. But next year should (knock wood) truly put the era of major surges behind us as a degree of herd immunity sets in. Once it does, Republicans will call for full normalcy. Some Democrats will too. But others will begin squabbling among themselves about what level of risk is appropriate and how far the state should go to manage that risk.

Like, what do you say to this guy to put him at ease?

The debate in D.C. this week is a sneak preview of what’s to come for Dems. Mayor Muriel Bowser famously reimposed a mask mandate on her city over the summer despite the fact that cases and hospitalizations were low, then proceeded to violate that mandate herself repeatedly. But even Bowser can’t abide “pandemic forever” logic. She announced this week that she’ll finally lift D.C.’s indoor mask mandate this Monday. And her office sounded surprisingly reasonable in explaining why:

Bowser said it’s a step in shifting to a different sort of public health message: COVID-19 is here to stay, but the vaccine offers good protection, so families and individuals must assess their own risks.

“We are learning to live with COVID,” DC Health Director LaQuandra Nesbitt said…

“Instead of following a blanket mandate, residents, visitors, and workers will be advised to follow risk-based guidance from DC Health that accounts for current health metrics and a person’s vaccination status,” officials said in a press release…

“What you’ll hear discussed across the nation is, we’re moving from a pandemic to an endemic,” the mayor said. “[…] I anticipate that’s where we’ll be moving too. Rather than the government telling you what you need to do to keep safe, you will evaluate risk and act accordingly.”

D.C. is vaxxed to the gills. Eighty-eight percent of adults have had at least one dose and 70 percent of those 12 and over are fully vaccinated. By share of population that’s received a first dose, the District is ahead of all but eight states. And it’s paid off for them. The mini-wave they experienced in August and September saw less than half the number of people hospitalized as were hospitalized during last winter’s peak:

Not since late May has D.C. averaged more than one COVID death per day. The current rate is much lower than that:

You’re more likely to get shot in D.C. today than you are to die of COVID, warned Kaylee McGhee White of the Examiner. It’s true.

But the D.C. City Council is unimpressed. They sent a letter to Bowser warning her that it’s too soon to leave the public to its own risk assessments with respect to masking. What about the children?

Won’t somebody please think of the children?

You know the statistics about children, especially young children, dying from COVID at this point as well as I do. It has happened but it’s almost unheard of, and it remains an open question whether masking by adults or by kids themselves meaningfully reduces their odds of a severe case. There’s no near-term prospect of the vaccine being approved for infants and toddlers either. If the councilmembers are serious about sticking with masks until the youngest children are eligible, D.C. might be looking at another year of masking. Insanity.

I’ll give them this, though. They’re almost certainly right that Bowser will eventually reverse course and reimpose the mandate “causing whiplash-like confusion for residents.” Montgomery County in Maryland is another blue jurisdiction with a high vaccination rate; in fact, at 78 percent fully vaccinated, their rate is higher than D.C.’s. Even so, they’ve just reinstituted their indoor mask mandate because they’re following a silly rule in which the mandate automatically takes effect once cases cross a particular threshold (50 per 100,000 residents). Once 85 percent of residents are vaccinated, the mandate will be lifted permanently, which is at least a measure of reasonableness. But they’re not there yet.

It’s goofy that jurisdictions are still measuring the severity of the local pandemic in terms of cases rather than hospitalizations. Vaccines are freely available and the feds are just days away from authorizing boosters for all American adults. You can lower your risk of severe illness to virtually nothing with a third dose. And even if cases spread this winter, highly vaxxed jurisdictions like D.C. and Montgomery County shouldn’t need to worry about their hospitals being overrun. There’ll be enough ER and ICU capacity for all who need it. All of that points to Bowser’s office being right when they say that the era of personal risk management has arrived — but no one seriously believes she’ll stick to that logic if cases begin spiking in her city. If only to signal her tribal loyalty to her own party, the Party of Precautions, she’ll end up bringing the mandate back this winter. Watch and see.