Shifting Gears on COVID

Blue and red states alike are ending mask mandates and other restrictions.

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After a major ramp-up in parts of the country in response to the Omicron wave, most of the country seems to be winding down. Indeed, even Dr. Antony Fauci seems to approve.


The United States is exiting “the full-blown pandemic phase” of the coronavirus crisis, Anthony S. Fauci, President Biden’s top medical adviser, told the Financial Times as World Health Organization officials said half a million covid-19 deaths have been tallied around the globe since the omicron variant was first detected in November.

Fauci said decisions on coronavirus restrictions will be increasingly made on a local level, “as we get out of the full-blown pandemic phase of covid-19, which we are certainly heading out of,” Fauci told the newspaper. “There will also be more people making their own decisions on how they want to deal with the virus.”

In the United States, covid cases declined 44 percent in the past week compared to the previous seven days, according to a Washington Post tracker, and hospitalizations related to covid-19 also declined over the same period. However, the seven-day average of deaths during the omicron surge has reached 2,600 in recent days, the highest level the country has seen in a year.

To my lay eyes, it seems premature to declare the wave to have passed. But Fauci is certainly right that we’re seeing a more localized response. And it’s not just the states led by crazies who are rolling back.


Gov. Kathy Hochul will drop New York’s stringent indoor mask mandate on Wednesday, ending a requirement that businesses ask customers for proof of full vaccination or require mask-wearing at all times, and marking a turning point in the state’s coronavirus response, according to three people briefed on her decision.

The decision will eliminate a rule that prompted legal and interpersonal clashes over mask wearing, especially in conservative parts of New York. It was set to expire on Thursday and would have required renewing.

Ms. Hochul is expected to let the mask mandate lapse just as a crushing winter surge in coronavirus cases is finally receding. But it was as yet unclear whether the governor would renew or drop a separate mask mandate in New York schools that expires in two weeks.

Still, the easing of New York’s pandemic restrictions on businesses comes as Democratic-led states from New Jersey to California have announced similar moves this week, in a loosely coordinated effort that is the result of months of public-health planning, back-channel discussions and political focus groups that began in the weeks after the November election.

The moves highlight how even local officials who installed sweeping safety measures early in the pandemic are now preparing to live permanently with the virus.

“This is not a declaration of victory as much as an acknowledgment that we can responsibly live with this thing,” Gov. Philip D. Murphy of New Jersey, a Democrat who imposed some of the nation’s toughest pandemic-related mandates, said on Monday. Under Mr. Murphy’s new policy, which will take effect the second week of March, students and school employees in the state will no longer be required to wear masks.

Shortly after the New Jersey announcement on Monday, the Democratic leaders in California, Connecticut, Delaware and Oregon separately said they would also end some mask mandates.

Connecticut will permit students and staff members to stop wearing masks in schools by no later than Feb. 28; Delaware will end mask mandates in schools by March 31. Oregon and California announced the end to mask mandates at indoor public spaces.

My home state of Virginia, where local school boards, including the one governing my kids’ schools, are clashing with the newly-inaugurated Republican governor over mask mandates, seems to be following suit—with the support of the Democratic legislature.

Democrats in Virginia’s Senate signaled support Tuesday for making school masks optional by July, a turnaround after weeks of howling against Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s efforts to end mask mandates right away.

Youngkin (R), who has made parental power over masks a centerpiece of his first month in office, called the move “a significant step … for parents and children.”

The sudden change of heart by at least some Democrats gives Youngkin a win on an issue that otherwise could be bogged down in courts for weeks or even months, and comes as several other states led by Democratic governors have begun winding down their K-12 mask mandates.

There is still some distance for the measure to travel, and a potential stumbling block: Youngkin’s office hopes to get the measure implemented sooner, possibly by the end of February. Whatever the timing, the effort stands as the first example of Youngkin working across the aisle after kicking off his term with a flurry of executive actions that left Democrats reeling.

Like it or not, the federal government simply has very little authority over this matter. In my ideal world, states and localities would work with CDC and other federal experts to make sound decisions but, rather obviously, the record there is at best mixed. Regardless, it makes sense to have local flexibility. The same rules shouldn’t apply in crowded cities and rural areas or in places where the virus is running wild versus reasonably contained.

Absent much greater vaccination rates, we’re likely never to get to the vaunted “herd immunity.” Presumably, the unvaccinated will eventually catch the virus and build up lesser immunity. Either way, though, we’re going to start treating this as endemic.

My fear—indeed, my expectation—is that there will be another wave and we’re simply going to ignore it. That is, once the masks come off, they’re staying off for most people. Even in the most Democratic cities, mayors will be loath to impose mandates again once people get used to not having to wear them. People mostly put up with the restrictions the first time because we all thought they were going to be very short-lived—a few weeks at most. More than two years in, most are simply “done” with it all.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Kathy says:

    It is very premature, no matter if Fauci approves.

    Kathy’s first law of COVID: when we let our guard down, the trump virus eats us for lunch.

  2. Cheryl Rofer says:

    I’ve got a graphic I’ve posted again and again on Twitter. It’s getting some circulation this time.
    I think that the next wave will be somewhat mitigated by the level of immunity from vaccination and infection, but immunity from infection seems to wane more quickly. So midsummer? Fall? And of course we can think about the next variant.

  3. Michael Reynolds says:

    It’s time. People are done with this. You can argue about it all day, but people are just done.

    I have three rounds of Moderna. If there’s a fourth, I’ll take that, too. The odds of this think killing me are quite low. The odds of it killing anyone with a functioning brain are quite low. Insofar as it kills anyone at this point, it’s closer to suicide than manslaughter, and the people who seem to want to get sick and die are, quite frankly, exactly the people I won’t miss.

    We have done far more than decency requires to keep old Republicans from dying. But in the end it’s their call. Dear Elderly Republicans: Okay, die, I DGAF.

  4. Jen says:

    I’ll continue to take reasonable precautions, but it’s likely fine to loosen the more stringent restrictions.

    The problem is that people don’t really understand what that means. One person I know was complaining that NH is “more restrictive than NJ” because she’d just seen a headline that NJ was dropping its school mask mandate. What she didn’t appear to understand was that NJ had a *statewide* school masking mandate, which NH doesn’t have, so no, we are not more restrictive than NJ. I’m not sure why she was whining about this anyways, her kids go to a religious school where masks have never been required.

    At this stage, people should do what is best for themselves. For us, it means holding back a while longer on activities like dining out–it’s not that long until spring, we’ll eat outside then, and hope that by fall 2022 this thing is endemic rather than pandemic.

    If the doorknob-licking crowd wants to get back to doing that, have at it. Hopefully the hospitals can handle it.

  5. Kathy says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    Consider two words: Long COVID.

  6. Michael Reynolds says:

    It doesn’t matter. Most people will listen to science up to a point, but only up to a point. In the end people make their own risk calculations. How many people still sunbathe without sunblock? How many people drink more than advisable? How many people avoid even minimal exercise?

    Barring a major new variant with some serious new kill capacity, mask compliance is done.

  7. Kathy says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    How many people avoid even minimal exercise?

    I don’t avoid that, but it’s included under all forms of exercise.

    Still, you can smoke for years or decades, or drink, or sunbathe without protection, or do any number of other things for years and years, before there are any negative consequences. Long COVID tends to hit shortly after recovery, and it’s anyone’s guess how long it will last.

    I don’t know if the incidence is lower among vaccinated people.

    Keep it in mind when doing risk calculations.

  8. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    It’s been over two years. We’ve done all we can. We will never convince the bone-heads to do what’s in the best interest of the collective, especially when they are being told not to by Republicans.
    So yeah…let’s move on.
    Here in CT the Governor has done a great job, we are highly vaxxed, and going about your business is relatively safe.
    In the Red States – they’ll just have to pay the price of their ignorance, or more accurately, the ignorance of their leaders.

  9. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    How many people still sunbathe without sunblock? How many people drink more than advisable? How many people avoid even minimal exercise?

    I feel seen…

  10. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Daryl and his brother Darryl:

    I feel seen…

    Odd, because I was actually using a mirror.

  11. Scott says:

    @Michael Reynolds: I’m with you. I’ve done what I can. My family (including my invincible young adult children) has done what they can. We all know how to assess risk for just about any situation. My attitude towards the voluntarily unvaccinated is just, let us say, uncharitable. I’ll pray for forgiveness and feel a little guilty for my unChristian thoughts but that is about it.

  12. Joe says:

    Keep it in mind when doing risk calculations.

    I do, Kathy. But as a fully vaxed and boosted person, I will wear a mask where convenient (or required), but I will also not always wear it. If the local restrictions are loosened, I will follow them just as I have followed the tighter restrictions. I understand this is not risk free behavior, but it is probably less risky than the weight I carry and I haven’t addressed that yet, either.

  13. Gustopher says:

    The mask mandates and the vaccine checking should be tied to current community transmission levels, triggering on and off as needed.

    Yes, per @Cheryl Rofer‘s graphic, it will lead to spikes — sharp oscillations — but it would be a clear policy removed from political culture war concerns (there would still be people complaining about freedom and what not, but the actual decision would be explicable to the vast majority). And “transmission has risen to mask levels again” is a clear, straightforward message from a public health standpoint.

    Just rolling back restrictions and/or letting them expire is a mistake. It will kill people unnecessarily.

  14. CSK says:

    Massachusetts is lifting its mask requirement for school on Feb. 28, although anyone who wishes to continue masking is welcome to do so.

  15. Jax says:

    I ran into an interesting thread on Facebook yesterday. Locals were comparing their long-haul Covid symptoms, and at least 5 have lost all their hair. All of it, like “going through chemo/radiation” baldness.

    I thought that was kind of interesting, it’s not a symptom of long-haul that I’d heard much about.

  16. Jen says:

    @Jax: Yep. It’s been widely reported but not really much traction on it as a long-covid issue.

    Fortune had a piece on this just recently.

  17. Sleeping Dog says:

    We’re not the only country moving on to the next stage.

    Of course Denmark has a much higher vax rate than we do.

    The other day I commented to a friend that I was more afraid of dying of boredom, than dying of covid.

  18. Modulo Myself says:

    I’m over Covid, insofar that I’m resigned to going back to normal and NGAF (albeit while working from home). But let’s be honest. America is largely dysfunctional. Most of the Covid deaths since spring of 2020 were preventable. That’s about 800K dead, and we’re about to be subjected to a propaganda campaign about getting back to where we were, which is even more dysfunctional. Worse, ‘normal’ is about to become a concept like ‘taxpayer’. Think of all of the dumb, damaging attacks on the public good in the name of the taxpayer. Now we can do that with normal too.

    The real kicker is going to be getting white-collar workers back into the office. Let’s see how that pans out…

  19. Kathy says:

    I’m preempting the next variant and its attendant wave, by keeping on my mask and staying away from people as much as possible. there’s a big irony in working at an office full of maskholes, of course, but I refuse to add to the risk by going anywhere with more unmasked idiots.

  20. gVOR08 says:

    People keep asking how “COVID” will end. We all know COVID won’t end, and that COVID restrictions and precautions, which is what people really mean by “COVID”, will end, not with a bang, but a whimper. Schools are open and will stay that way. Mask requirements are largely gone and will continue to fade. The few places with vaxx requirements will slowly stop checking. People will continue getting vaxxed and boosted at slow rates. Media will relegate their daily COVID statistics to the back pages, then slowly drop them. Republicans will claim victory over Fauci and continue to run on freedumb. The current inadequate vaxx and booster rates along with better treatments will keep it from becoming an obvious crisis. (Assuming no killer variant.) And people will continue to die at a rate higher than our peer countries.

  21. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    To my lay eyes, it seems premature to declare the wave to have passed.

    Look at it from the bright side. When the next variant spike comes in a few weeks, you can do another post about confusing/conflicting information from the experts.

  22. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    “But let’s be honest. America is largely dysfunctional.”

    This, too!

  23. Gustopher says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    The odds of this think killing me are quite low. The odds of it killing anyone with a functioning brain are quite low. Insofar as it kills anyone at this point, it’s closer to suicide than manslaughter, and the people who seem to want to get sick and die are, quite frankly, exactly the people I won’t miss.

    For the first order deaths, excepting the immunocompromised and elderly, I would tend to agree.

    But, if your hospital is running over capacity, do you think you’re going to get the best care for your heart attack, auto accident, stroke…

    You’re also sentencing the medical staff to a continuing status quo which is not good.

    Now, if you want to set up Ivermectin Centers in rural areas of swing states… that would alleviate a lot of those secondary problems.

  24. Mu Yixiao says:


    But, if your hospital is running over capacity, do you think you’re going to get the best care for your heart attack…

    Based on a recent investigation… Yes! 😀

    (Okay, they weren’t running over capacity.)

  25. Kingdaddy says:

    @Cheryl Rofer: That’s an excellent graphic. It’s a clear illustration of why we have to think about COVID in system terms.

  26. wr says:

    I’m tired of reality, so I’m going to stop paying attention to it and will assume it will stop paying attention to me.

  27. Michael Reynolds says:


    But, if your hospital is running over capacity, do you think you’re going to get the best care for your heart attack, auto accident, stroke…

    Which is a fact in no way affected by whether or not I wear a mask. Again, we have done all that decency required and far more. Unless we’re going to start arresting people and forcing them to get the shot, we’re going to have to live with what we’ve got.

    I have complied faithfully with every directive – made much easier by my being a hermit – but I am not going to go around masked for the rest of my fucking life because morons won’t take the shot. I’ve taken the shot, I’ve taken every reasonable step, but this is not a lifestyle choice for me, I am not a member of the cult of the mask. There are risks in life, which, cumulatively, come to 100%. This is a small addition to the risks of cancer, heart disease, accident and asteroids falling out of the sky.

    If I learned one thing from being on the run it’s that you have to achieve balance. You don’t ignore fear, but you don’t let it define you, either.

  28. Kathy says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    I don’t know. I like the idea of never again catching cold or the flu.

  29. Mu Yixiao says:

    When people talk about “zero risk” or “if it saves even one person”, I like to bring up a couple statistics:

    In an average year in the US…

    2,500 people die from falling on a flat, non-elevated surface (e.g., walking on flat ground)
    2,500 people die from falling off of furniture
    50 people die from hot tap water

    I don’t see anyone screaming that we need to eliminate the ground, our beds, or our showers.

    People simply don’t understand risk assessment–in either direction.

  30. gVOR08 says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    I have complied faithfully with every directive

    Respectfully, no, I doubt that’s what you were really doing. I started wearing masks a couple weeks before anybody said I should. (And got dirty looks in my physical therapist’s office because they thought I was using up medical masks. I had a box of dust masks in the garage.) I still wear masks in indoor public spaces although, being vaxxed and boostered, nobody’s really saying I have to. I’m complying with any rules I encounter, which here in DeSantistan is rarely. But mostly I’m doing what makes sense to me. And I expect that’s what you’re doing.

    IIRC, and perhaps I don’t, early on you had everything delivered and even left it sit a few days before bringing it in. I just wore rubber gloves in the super market. Nobody told us we had to do those things. And we quit, or at least I did, when in our judgement surface transmission wasn’t a thing.

    And why do people keep talking about living in fear? Do I live in fear of traffic accidents? Not particularly. Do I buckle up? Every time. Why? Why not?

    I’m going to keep doing whatever I think is reasonable, and I suspect you will too.

  31. MarkedMan says:

    I think it is widely misunderstood just how vexed the elderly are. Even in the most god forsaken states the 65 and over are 90% vaxxed. There are about ten states where this cohort are 99% vaxxed. There aren’t a lot of stupid old people left to vax.

  32. Kathy says:

    @Mu Yixiao:

    I’m actually very careful with hot water, as it can cause extensive third degree burns easily. I don’t climb on furniture, either. I also don’t drive while drunk.

    As for getting rid of the ground, that’s not a bad idea. How would you go about it?

  33. Michael Reynolds says:

    TBH I had everything delivered long before Covid. 99% of what comes through our door is Amazon, DoorDash, Instacart or CVS delivery. But no, I don’t leave food out for days, though we did spray things down til it was clear that the issue was airborne transmission.

    It’s been extremely easy for us – we work at home and are anti-social to boot. But I have no patience with performative virtue and is absurd for us to walk into an outdoor café wearing masks only to take them off as soon as drinks arrive. Our risk is very low because we work at home and are vaxxed up and don’t socialize, and I’m tired of the whole kabuki when it is not warranted, IMO. I’m 25 pounds overweight, my default position is prone and I both drive in LA and breathe LA air, it’s not likely to be Covid that kills me.

    On May 1 I’m flying to London and plan to spend two months in Mykonos, Istanbul, Florence, Valencia, Lisbon, Paris and back to London, unless there’s something much scarier than Omicron out there.

  34. Dude Kembro says:

    @Daryl and his brother Darryl:

    In the Red States – they’ll just have to pay the price of their ignorance, or more accurately, the ignorance of their leaders.

    3,300+ have died of COVID every day this week. My issue is that hospital personnel may have to pay the price, so the rest of us can pretend there’s not a 9/11 happening every day. I thought loosening these non-strict restrictions would wait a few weeks till deaths started falling, like case counts and hospitalizations already have.

    I wish more was done to protect nurses and doctors. Like, I dunno, a liability shield allowing hospitals to cap beds for antivaxxers. But we expect healthcare workers to take our abuse and like it, as teachers do. I golf clapped at antivaxxer transplant patients being denied organs. Since we’re ‘over it,’ hospitals should be allowed to give antivaxxers horse paste and send them home to do their research.

    That said, statewide mandates have been symbolic for a while now, in my travel observations. Many people and businesses were already doing what they want, in states with and without mandates.

    So if hearing, “We’re dropping restrictions [that y’all were already ignoring]” helps soothe the collective psyche, whatever.

  35. Gustopher says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    But, if your hospital is running over capacity, do you think you’re going to get the best care for your heart attack, auto accident, stroke…

    Which is a fact in no way affected by whether or not I wear a mask.

    But it does have a lot to do with whether everyone is wearing masks, and whether restaurants are checking vaccine status…

    Yes, you personally don’t matter much. You’re vaxxed, boosted and a crazy hermit — as am I — so you’re not likely to be the problem, or at least you contribute less to the problem than most people.

    I get that we aren’t going to stop this pandemic, but we can slow it when hospitals are likely to get overloaded, and set the regulations to automatically trigger on certain thresholds to try to prevent that.

    @Mu Yixiao:

    When people talk about “zero risk” or “if it saves even one person”, I like to bring up a couple statistics…

    I am a little disappointed that one of your statistics wasn’t the percentage of people who need a-killin’. Because that number is non-zero, and may exceed the current covid deaths.

    (For instance, the fat white people brandishing guns because scary black people were walking past their house that were in the other post… if they died from covid, I don’t think the world would be a poorer place)

    (So many times the problem with the Trolley Problem is a shortage of trolleys and poor trolley targeting)

  36. Flat Earth Luddite says:

    @Daryl and his brother Darryl:
    @Michael Reynolds:
    Hey hey hey… let’s not be talking about my bronzed, macho-god body, you two! (insert snickering emoji here)

    Seriously, I’ve been wearing three masks at work (mandated by employer):
    1. Colon Cancer Awareness Mask
    2. “I’m immunocompromised” Mask
    3. Snarky Panda mask.
    The first two get some comments. The third one makes people step back to the 6′ distance, thus serving my humble purposes. (short/fat/old dude giggling maniacally at the customers is my best look, IMO)

  37. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @wr: I see a fair amount of what seems to be this thought at the high schools I go to. We still have mask mandates at all of them, but the degree to which students keep them on all period is declining precipitously. And the situation is exactly as Dr. Taylor described the situation of public space mask mandates–other than asking them to be more careful with the health of their classmates (which causes them to pull their masks back up until they let them fall again), there’s not much to be done).

    And yes, I hear a fair amount of MR and other’s “it’s okay, I’m vaxxed” response. Oh well…

  38. Monala says:

    @MarkedMan: yeah, I wrote recently that I get the (once daily, now weekly) COVID emails from my county health department. They include stats on cases, vax rates, hospitalizations and deaths, broken down by age range (you can visit their website for more detailed breakdowns by race, geographic location, etc).

    The interesting thing to see over time is that it has become increasingly less likely for elderly people to get sick and die from COVID, while middle aged people have become the largest percentage of cases and deaths. Elderly people are more likely to be vaccinated(since they got the vaccine before it became politicized) and less likely to be working, so they can socially distance more easily. Middle aged people are less likely to be vaccinated, usually still working, and often already dealing with common comorbidities, such as diabetes and high blood pressure. Particularly sad is the fact that many middle aged people are still raising their children, who end up orphaned.


    I’m not happy about the move away from mask mandates. Even when vax rates stalled at 50% in my county last summer (rising to 70% after vax mandates started in the fall), we had an ongoing mask mandate—rescinded for only a few weeks in the summer and then reinstated. And people here in my Western Washington county are very good about adhering to the mask mandates. It’s made easier for me, someone at high risk, to feel comfortable going out to stores, etc, and meant that my daughter’s school hasn’t had to have shutdowns or quarantines due to COVID outbreaks at school. My fear is that this will change dramatically if the mask mandates are ended.

    Also, I frequently read the accounts of hospital workers dealing with COVID. It’s horrifying, and I’d hate to think of it getting worse.

  39. dazedandconfused says:

    I suspect the only thing that might prompt the still-unvaxed to get vaxed is officially banning masks and social distancing. Tell everybody the new plan is to get everybody infected at the same time in order to create herd immunity. We believe long-COVID is only a worry for the unvaxed, and the unvaxed will serve as the control group lab-rats in this experiment. If you are unvaxed, please remain so.

    Reverse psych em’.

  40. Hal_10000 says:

    The most frustrating aspect of this is that we’re rolling back restrictions because vaccines and omicron have changed the game. But, of course, the COVID grifters are running around saying that this means they were right the whole time.

  41. TJ says:

    “But I have no patience with performative virtue and is absurd for us to walk into an outdoor café wearing masks only to take them off as soon as drinks arrive.”

    Look, in every infection, the dose matters to the likelihood of infection–and may matter to the severity.

    It may not have a large practical effect? Sure, possibly.

    But… in the big RCT in Bangladesh, they didn’t mandate–in the treatment arm of the study they promoted masking and gave out free masks in a whopping load of villages. They didn’t have perfect compliance (IIRC it was maybe 2/3?) and it made a measurable and significant difference in the deaths of the unvaxed (there wasn’t any avail at the time) in the top end of the pop period.

    If it made a significant difference in the deaths of the most susceptible, you can extrapolate the ratios of hospitalizations/ICU/death and find that it averted around 5x ICUs as deaths, 3X hosps as ICUs.

    That’s a huge impact on the world for taking what some are implying are pointless steps. Even if you do something half-assed, man that’s still half your ass!

  42. Pylon says:

    As someone who’s vaxxed and boosted, and who has had Omicron, I don’t feel in any particular personal danger of getting life threatening COVID from the loosening of rules. BUT, there will be a surge in cases as the unvaxxed flock into establishments, people more vulnerable than I will get serious COVID symptoms, the hospitals will be flooded again, and people like me who’ve taken precautions will nonetheless be at risk of having surgeries postponed, being turned away from ICUs because of capacity (because heart attacks, strokes, accidents, etc still happen).