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Democrats roll back COVID restrictions in their states as omicron attitudes shift

ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

Millions of Americans are getting mixed messages this week about staying safe in the pandemic. New York joined a number of other Democratic-led states today with a plan to roll back some COVID restrictions. Here's Governor Kathy Hochul announcing that starting tomorrow, private businesses will no longer be required statewide to enforce vaccine and masking rules.

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KATHY HOCHUL: Given the declining cases, given declining hospitalizations, that is why we feel comfortable to lift this in effect tomorrow.

FLORIDO: But still today, federal health officials reinforced CDC guidance that in almost all of the country, people should be masked up when indoors. NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson is at the White House to shed more light on all of this. Hi, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi there.

FLORIDO: So a lot of democratic states now appear ready to move on from masking restrictions. But the CDC says, according to the data, it's still too soon. Here's CDC Director Rochelle Walensky today.

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ROCHELLE WALENSKY: I know there will come a time when we move from a phase of crisis to a point where COVID-19 is not disrupting our daily lives. And as we all look forward to this next step, I want to instill in everyone that moving forward from this pandemic will be a process that's led by our surveillance and our data.

FLORIDO: Mara, we're used to a divide between Republicans and Democrats in the pandemic. But usually, it's the Democrats enforcing public health measures more stringently. So what's changed?

LIASSON: Well, I think there is a divide. You've got the White House and the CDC on one side, and then you've got Democratic governors on the other. Really, the president has two competing imperatives here. Remember - he campaigned on listening to the scientists. And so far, the science, the federal science - that's the CDC - is not ready to move, and the president can't throw the CDC under the bus. He also doesn't want to declare victory against the virus too early because he did that last year. Remember - July 4 was going to be Independence Day, and then delta happened.

FLORIDO: Right.

LIASSON: But on the other hand, Democratic governors including the - and the DCCC and many congressional Democrats running for reelection, they're ready to move on because they're hearing from their frustrated voters who are vaccinated and want to get back to normal. Returning to normalcy was one of the bedrock campaign promises that Biden made. So the Biden administration, I think, is really struggling to make the transition to the new normal. The new normal will be not trying to get to COVID zero when you're trying to eliminate all infections. The new normal will be keeping hospitalizations and deaths low, getting daily life back to normal with COVID in the background. And that is hypothetically where we're going.

FLORIDO: And so what is the White House saying today about this?

LIASSON: Well, today, over and over again, the press secretary, Jen Psaki, said, quote, "people should follow the CDC guidance, which is keep masking in areas of high transition (ph) indoors." That's a recommendation, not a mandate.

FLORIDO: OK.

LIASSON: And then Walensky said that they're constantly reviewing the data and working on revising the guidance. So it's possible that there's going to be some new guidance soon. And something else Psaki said is that there's a very different speed of data versus the speed of politics. In other words, the CDC just moves slower than public officials do because they follow a scientific process and a protocol. But in the end, this will be a judgment call, whether it's for a governor or for the president. That's why it's called public health. It's not just science in a vacuum. You have to account for human behavior and the economy and the mental health effects of masks on little kids. Those decisions will be made.

FLORIDO: And these public officials will be judged by voters on how they handle this, the decisions they make. How could that play out?

LIASSON: Well, that's a good question. You know, Republicans were against masks because of ideology and a distrust of experts and science. Democrats now are coming slowly to the conclusion that maybe we don't need mask requirements based on science and the progression of the pandemic. So who wins the political battle? Republicans want voters to be angry at Democrats for keeping the mask mandates on for so long. Biden shifted over the last year from trying to unify everyone and bring them along voluntarily to imposing mandates, or at least trying to, and then blaming Republicans who question vaccines for undermining the effort to get COVID under control. We don't know which side will be successful. But we do know that when you have a low-trust, highly polarized society like ours, people don't do the thing that's good for everyone. Getting vaccinated is the right thing to do. Countries in Europe are way over 90% vaccinated without mandates because they have high-trust societies, and that's just not the situation we have here.

FLORIDO: That's NPR's Mara Liasson. Thanks, Mara.

LIASSON: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mara Liasson
Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.