I’ve consistently argued for the last year that the transportation mask mandate would be lifted some time before the November elections. That’s because the administration needs to ‘declare victory’ on the virus as Democrats struggle to defend control of both houses of Congress. Betting markets now agree with me, but not overwhelmingly so.
- Mask mandates are a symbol of the pandemic’s continuation
- Declaring victory, at a minimum, means that the Secretary of Health and Human Services “rescinds the determination under section 319 of the Public Health Service Act (42 U.S.C. 247d) that a public health emergency exists” and this is the snap back language that automatically and immediately lifts the rule regardless of its current end date.
The federal mask mandate currently runs through March 18. The fact that there have been target expiration dates means that at some point it could simply be allowed to sunset, rather than requiring an affirmative action step to be taken. That’s what makes it possible that at some point before the election that the rule will end.
However there’s a powerful force that is extending pandemic restrictions: fear that restrictions could be lifted, and circumstances might change that would necessitate them again. While it seems reasonable that rules ought to be in place when they’re needed, and not when they aren’t needed – so lift them as circumstances dictate, and re-impose again in the future if required – this fact-based inquiry is difficult in politics.
As Democrat Nate Silver highlights, the Biden Administration believes it needs to continue restrictions because not doing so risks embarrassment if something changes.
The White House's COVID messaging strategy sounds pretty incoherent. They want to "reset people's expectations" but they don't want to do a "hard pivot" and they also don't want to do anything substantive like revising mask guidance.https://t.co/Ns76KCf7qI pic.twitter.com/DrMn511pKl
— Nate Silver (@NateSilver538) February 3, 2022
Vaccines are holding up remarkably well against hospitalization considering we’re still vaccinating against the ancestral Wuhan strain. The virus is so fast-spreading now that mitigation measures work far less well. Airline cabins are safer than other indoor congregant settings where masks aren’t required. Remarkably effective treatments have been developed. It seems like we’re headed into the endemic stage of the virus where we learn to coexist with it through annual vaccination and subclinical infection without straining hospitals – and that means individuals taking precautions appropriate to their circumstances rather than widespread government mandates.
However there’s a chance that restrictions get lifted but the Omicron wave turns out not to be the last gasp of the virus. That would make it thinkable that restrictions could make sense again. But the political calculus is that looks like the administration ‘made a mistake.’ And this administration’s fear of appearing to make an error is balancing out its need to declare victory. And that could delay lifting the transportation mask mandate.