Republican rhetoric in Washington, however, is a sideshow to the real fight over Covid, in states like Florida and Texas.
In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis rejected vaccine passports and launched an aggressive campaign against mandatory mask-wearing in schools. “It is very important that we say, unequivocally, no to lockdowns, no to school closures, no to restrictions and no to mandates,” he told a gathering of conservative activists in Utah last month. DeSantis has suspended city and county emergency orders, put limits on future mitigation efforts, and signed a law that “shields nursing homes, hospitals and businesses from legal liability if employees and patrons contract the virus on their premises.”
All of this, even as the state has been ravaged by the Delta variant of the virus. Florida has been reporting more than 20,000 new infections a day and has averaged 262 Covid deaths — the most of any state, at least in absolute numbers. More than 16,000 people are hospitalized and thousands have been taken to intensive care units. Who does DeSantis blame for these outcomes? Biden.
“You know, he said he was going to end Covid. He hasn’t done that,” the Florida governor told the Fox News host Jesse Watters last week. “At the end of the day, he is trying to find a way to distract from the failures of his presidency.”
In Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott has banned mask mandates, signed legislation that would deny state contracts or licenses to businesses that require proof of vaccination, and — after recovering from a breakthrough Covid infection himself — banned local governments from requiring the vaccine for any public agency or private institution. In a statement, Abbott said that this was to avoid a “patchwork of vaccine mandates across Texas.” But in a message to the state legislature, the governor appeared to be asking lawmakers to consider an outright ban on vaccine mandates. On Aug. 25, the day Abbott sent his message, Texas reported more than 23,000 new cases of Covid, along with 14,000 hospitalizations and 245 deaths.
Abbott and DeSantis are not alone. Earlier this month, the Republican governor of Arizona, Doug Ducey, created two new grant programs that would give funds to families and school districts that rejected mask mandates. And in South Dakota, Gov. Kristi Noem once again cheered the Sturgis motorcycle rally, a year after it contributed to a Covid outbreak throughout the region and into the Midwest. This year, health officials have already linked the rally to cases in Minnesota, North Dakota, Wisconsin and Wyoming.
The effect of all of this for the country is a pandemic that won’t die. The effect of it for the Republican Party is a substantial part of its base that won’t take the vaccine. According to data collected by the Kaiser Family Foundation, Republicans lag most of the rest of the country in vaccine uptake; 54 percent said they had received at least one dose at the time of the survey, compared with 67 percent of all adults. And the effect of this for Biden is a sharp drop to his approval rating; a Reuters poll conducted mid-month found the president down 21 points among all Americans for his handling of the pandemic.