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Joe Biden inherited a country deeply divided over the coronavirus. A country where public health measures as simple as wearing a mask and social distancing have become symbols of political party affiliation. It’s a divide that may prove a significant blockage to the president’s roadmap to recovery.
“Biden speaks to the aspiration of unity, and it’s nice to hope for that, but the pandemic has been understood by much of the country through deeply polarized and politicized lenses,” said Wendy Parmet, a professor of law and public policy at Northeastern University.
The Covid-19 death toll has now passed 429,000 in the US and the virus, ignored – or worse – by his predecessor, is Biden’s top priority. Polarization around Covid-19 health policies has not stopped Biden from making significant promises to improve the federal response.
On his first day in office, Biden signed executive orders mandating masks on federal property and when traveling on planes, buses and trains.
“This is not a political statement. This is about the health of our families and economic recovery of our country,” said Jeff Zients, the Biden administration’s Covid-19 response coordinator, of the mandates. The next day, Biden released a 200-page document detailing his administration’s plan to fight the virus, including increasing mask usage and ramping up testing.
Many health officials and public health experts are relieved to see federal guidance on Covid-19 health measures after months of confusing and often contradictory information from the Trump administration. But even if the new administration has a clear vision of the exit from the pandemic, the responsibility to implement public health measures is shared with state leaders, some of whom have become accustomed to seeing measures against the virus as a threat to their political party.
As soon as Biden was declared winner of the election in November, a handful of red-state governors – some who refused to acknowledge that Biden won the presidency until weeks later – said they would not heed to his calls for tighter public health measures, like universal masking, even as Covid-19 cases were soaring in their states.
“[If Biden] approaches me about a mask mandate, I would not be going along with a mask mandate,” Nebraska’s governor, Pete Ricketts, said during a press conference in November.
In the weeks following the election, the virus surged throughout many parts of the country. Republican governors in Iowa, Oklahoma and Utah who initially voiced skepticism over tightened measures ended up implementing some of their own.
But conservative resistance to public health measures is still very much alive, teeing up roadblocks to Biden’s attempt at a coast-to-coast, coordinated response to the virus.
Thirteen states, all led by Republican governors, do not have statewide mask mandates. North Dakota’s governor, Doug Burgum, let the state’s mask mandate expire on 18 January, citing the drop in cases in the state, which at one point had the worst Covid-19 death rate in the country. Wisconsin’s Republican-majority state senate recently voted to overturn the mask mandate the state’s governor, Democrat Tony Evers, put in place. Montana’s new governor, Greg Gianforte, rolled back social distancing measures implemented by his Democratic predecessor and said he would get rid of the state’s mask mandate once more vulnerable people are vaccinated and the legislature passes protections for businesses from Covid-related lawsuits.
“Many Republican legislatures think it’s good politics right now to push back against any public health orders,” Parmet said. “We should never underestimate the power of political polarization right now.”
State leaders have broad powers to open or close businesses, implement mask mandates and determine how the Covid-19 vaccine is distributed in their states. Clashes have already been seen between local counties looking to implement tighter Covid-19 restrictions and state leaders who vehemently oppose strict public health measures. Florida’s governor, Ron DeSantis, has banned cities and counties from enforcing mask mandates and limiting capacity in restaurants. Georgia’s governor, Brian Kemp, filed a lawsuit, which was eventually dropped, against the city of Atlanta over its mask mandate.
Though governors may actively resist calls to strengthen public health measures, that does not mean actions from the federal government cannot be far-reaching. State leaders, for example, cannot interfere with the federal government’s ability to influence the tone set at a national level of how to best combat Covid-19.
“Having the president say ‘I’m challenging everyone to wear masks’, that can be beneficial and encourage people to wear masks, to combat the fatigue that people may be feeling,” said Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “Having a consistent message at the federal level is incredibly important as an intervention. Communication is one of our most important public health interventions.”
Lori Tremmel Freeman, chief executive officer of the National Association of County and City Health Officials, said national guidance highlights the importance of public health mitigation efforts, like wearing masks, making it easier for local health officials to implement their own guidelines.
“The more that we can be aligned, that we can have plans and good guidance that local health officials can point to, adhere to and say ‘this is how we’re supported at the federal and state levels to do these measures’, the easier it becomes,” Freeman said.
Ultimately, the most impact Biden’s Covid-19 health decisions can have will be influencing public opinion and getting people on board with wearing masks, social distancing and getting tested. Nuzzo noted that state leaders, even those who lean conservative, may eventually get on board with more effective public health measures if more Americans understand the benefits of having them in place.
“No state wants this pandemic to be prolonged,” Nuzzo said. “Having leadership that can make that case clearly, without suggesting that the virus is a distraction from a robust economy, I am hopeful that we will see a more concerted approach from states on a truly voluntary basis simply because they see it in their best interests.”
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: How red states might block Biden’s roadmap to Covid recovery | Joe Biden