President Joe Biden is threatening legal action by the secretary of education against Republican governors to get them to OK school mask mandates. This follows his calling leaders in Texas and Florida “Neanderthals” and a White House speech this month highlighting those states’ high COVID-19 case numbers and imploring their governors to “get out of the way of the people who are trying to do the right thing.”
The president’s attack on his political rivals is more an attempt to distract from falling approval ratings of his handling of the pandemic in the wake of a two-month-long upswing in cases than a genuine effort to be helpful. Those approval numbers have dropped from 62 percent on July 1 to just 53 percent this week, according to FiveThirtyEight.
Govs. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.) and Greg Abbott (R-Texas) have consistently encouraged vaccination, which provides the best protection against infection, serious illness and death from COVID-19. To label them as benighted obstructionists because they disagree with Biden on the effectiveness and propriety of mask mandates is way off base. The current surge of Delta variant cases in Florida and Texas was not caused by a lack of mandates and will likely abate without them.
New cases are surging nationwide, not just in Texas and Florida. There is a high level of community transmission in 49 states, which have a variety of mask policies. Fortunately, while COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths have risen, the increases are just a fraction of the numbers of new cases.
Throughout the pandemic, different areas of the country experienced peaks at different times. COVID-19 spread has never been uniform. In the spring of 2020, New York and surrounding northeastern states were hardest hit. In winter 2021, COVID-19 swept the nation. New York was affected once again, and California had a peak. Michigan — home of heavy-handed lockdowns — had peaks in November 2020 and April 2021 but not in January.
Now Florida and Texas are experiencing peaks. The seven-day case rates per 100,000 population are 692 and 405 respectively — high but below or on par with the 837, 664, 658 and 615 winter peaks seen respectively in California, New York, Massachusetts and Delaware. These latter states all had far more restrictive policies than Florida and Texas. Yet the winter peaks in Florida and Texas were lower than in those states.
Throughout the pandemic, Democratic leaders, including candidate and later president Biden, chastised Florida and Texas leaders for their relatively lax COVID-19 restrictions, repeatedly predicting mass casualty events that never occurred. In fact, Florida (home to one of the oldest, most vulnerable populations in the country) and Texas rank 22nd and 26th in per capita COVID-19 deaths. Both are roughly equal to the national average and well below the five highest-mortality states: New Jersey, New York, Mississippi, Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Four of these five more lethal locations consistently imposed lengthy, highly restrictive mandates on their populations, apparently to little effect.
The fact is government mandates have far less impact on infectious disease spread than voluntary behaviors. Multiple studies confirm that voluntary individual and business responses to avoid the risks of COVID-19 — staying at home, avoiding crowded stores and venues, taking infection-prevention measures that lower workplace transmission — were far more important in mitigating cases and deaths in previous surges than government restrictions. Unsurprisingly, people in Texas and Florida are reacting to the Delta surge, steadily increasing vaccinations over July and August. Rates doubled in the two states, which now account for more than a fifth of new daily vaccinations nationwide.
The experiences in India, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands indicate that the Delta wave will likely peak and start to decline — with or without mandates — in the next few weeks. New variants are possible and new hot spots will arise. Let’s hope President Biden’s response is less political and more constructive when that happens.
Joel Zinberg, a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute and associate clinical professor of surgery at the Icahn Mount Sinai School of Medicine, was senior economist and general counsel at the White House Council of Economic Advisers, 2017-2019.
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