This past Friday saw 78,932 official diagnoses of new COVID-19 cases nationally. On the same day, New Hampshire’s Republican Gov. Chris Sununu officially lifted the state’s mask mandate, while making it clear that he still thinks wearing masks is really important, you guys. This move came only days after Sununu ordered all children back into full-time on-site schooling, beginning today.
Boy, things must be clearing up nicely around here, yeah?
“New Hampshire’s trends in managing the pandemic are as troubling as any point over the past several months, with several key measures of progress getting worse in recent weeks,” reports New Hampshire Public Radio.
“We are seeing a real spike in COVID-19 cases,” says New Hampshire Health Care Association President Brendan Williams, “and with new variants like B.1.1.7 circulating, we will be the only New England state without a mask requirement — including for visitors from states hot with the virus.”
In other words, at a critical moment when vaccinations and safe behavior are in a headlong race to outrun the virus and its multiple and multiplying variants, Mr. Sununu has chosen to govern in the typical modern Republican way: Throw the parachute out of the plane, jump out after it, and hope you catch up to it before the ground catches up to you.
Is the mask requirement absolute at all moments? As the weather warms across the country, states could feel safe about lifting the outdoor mask mandate. “Governments need to give Americans an off-ramp to the post-pandemic world,” argues Derek Thompson in The Atlantic. “Ending outdoor mask mandates — or at the very least telling people when they can expect outdoor mask mandates to lift — is a good place to start.”
The risk of infection in an out-of-doors setting is comparatively low. Indoor spaces are the petri dishes where this thing thrives. Lapsing the mask mandate at the same time as you send the kids back into the building for full-time school seems tantamount to taunting the virus to its face. It puts teachers and administrators as well as children in the line of fire for these new variants, some of which don’t seem to give much of a damn about how young or healthy you are.
The variants, you see, are the whole ballgame right now. Republican defenders of watering down our COVID precautions point to declining death rates and hospitalizations. They are correct that the mortality rate has dropped; battlefield surgeons know more about saving lives in the middle of a war than they did at the beginning. The vaccines are also doing their part keeping people from getting so sick that they require hospitalization. This is all to the good.
The overall infection rate, however, is terrifying: Nearly 80,000 in one day, and at a moment when more than 130 million people have been vaccinated. The variants like B.1.1.7 out of Britain and P1 out of Brazil come into being when there are sky-high infection rates (like we have right now), because every single infection provides the virus with a chance to mutate. Letting this thing burn the way it is while cutting back on basic protections like masks invites the rise and takeover of a variant that could look at our miraculous vaccines and see nothing more muscular than tap water.
Why, for the love of Jonas Salk, is this happening?
Jim Justice, the Republican governor of West Virginia, dropped a big clue in early March of this year when he whomped Greg Abbott, the Republican governor of Texas, for declaring his state to be clear of the virus. “I don’t want to be critical,” said Justice, “but some people want to just move because it’s the most politically correct thing they can do. It becomes almost a macho thing and everything.”
The penny drops. “Political correctness,” the current right-wing bugaboo about the left, is about more than word choice and sensitivity. The concept brings with it the idea of a whole world view that looks down on all things disapproved of by the left. Preposterous in the main, the argument resonates strongest with the segment of the population that sees no problem with racist voting laws, hyper-violent cops and Confederate battle flags carried down the marbled halls of a sacked Capitol dome.
Jim Justice, in castigating Abbott for disdaining the science of COVID, revealed a very strict version of political correctness burning like a bonfire in the center of the Republican Party. Puddings like Abbott and Sununu feel compelled to dance around it with the rest, lest they be cast into the flames. The price for this furious fealty to a fiction: The damaged health of the body politic and the elongation of the pandemic. If a protracted pandemic harms the present administration, perhaps that is an end unto itself.
To be a Republican today usually requires, among a variety of things including the vocal belief that Trump won last November, a staunch anti-science worldview that equates masks with manacles and the very death of God. This is the “political correctness” of the right, and it comes with lethal baggage: The least vaccinated portions of the country are also the places where Trump performed well in the election.
The culture war has become one of the only reasons for the GOP to exist. As it happens, that war is also spectacular for GOP fundraising. The best way to raise money if you’re a Republican today? Adhere to Republican political correctness: Trump yes, science no.
The fight over COVID is the beating heart of that lucrative phenomenon. Beyond that, anything that makes governing harder for President Biden increases GOP prospects for the ’22 midterms, and if you think that’s not part of the equation, I humbly suggest you have some more reading to do (see: Mitch McConnell).
New Hampshire, now the only New England state without a mask mandate while on the verge of a fourth-wave surge of infections, has fallen victim to another Republican official’s lemming-like need to dive off the cliff of GOP political correctness. Thanks to “leaders” like Chris Sununu, the end of this ordeal remains nowhere in sight, and more variants are just waiting to hatch.