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One eye on midterms, Dems ease up on approach to virus

By ZEKE MILLER and WILL WEISSERT, Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — “People are tired,” Georgia Sen. Raphael Warnock says in the opening ad for his reelection campaign.

There’s not a face mask to be seen in the Democrat’s video montage of scenes across Georgia, as he goes on to say people that are “wondering when things will get back to normal, and at the same time not knowing what normal even means anymore.”

The ad reflects a shifting narrative on COVID-19 restrictions across the country: Democrats are now increasingly supportive of easing mandates as they struggle to address voter frustration with the lingering pandemic.

They’re hoping a shift in policy could serve to blunt incoming political attacks with the midterm elections — when control of Congress is at stake — now less than nine months away. But their appeals for a return to normalcy, both in symbols and practice, are putting new pressure on President Joe Biden.

More than a year after he was sworn into office pledging to bring about an end to the pandemic, the virus’ persistence has taken a toll on Biden’s approval in the midterm election year as COVID-19 restrictions and mask-wearing requirements move to the forefront of the nation’s culture wars.

After months of sparring with Republican governors for standing in the way of public health measures like face-coverings and social distancing, the sudden shift on the part of Democrats in recent days has caught White House officials off guard and left them seemingly out of sync with their own party.

While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention continues to recommend indoor masking in more than 99% of the country, even Democratic states from New York to California began easing mandates for the public, and New Jersey announced plans to roll back its face-covering requirement in schools.

“Some people may call what’s happening now the ‘new normal,'” Biden said last month, acknowledging the frustrations. “I call it a job not yet finished.”

Yet Biden, even some members of his own party contend, isn’t moving swiftly enough to finish the job. Governors in both parties have appealed to the federal government for new, clearer guidelines as COVID-19 becomes endemic and less of a public health emergency.

Administration officials for the first time this past week allowed that they have been working on new guidelines for the “next phase” of the pandemic response, but those are still weeks away.

“We understand where the emotions of the country are,” press secretary Jen Psaki said this week. “People are tired of masks.”

But she noted it wasn’t universal. “If you look at the polling though, there’s also a huge chunk of people who still want masks. Right? So, it’s not even that specific.”

She said Biden remains committed to his promise, stretching back to the campaign, to “listen to scientists, listen to data.”

White House officials, themselves eager to see the country get back to normal, looked forward to the Food and Drug Administration’s expected authorization of the Pfizer vaccine for the youngest kids. With what would then be universal coverage for the shots, new therapeutics and increasingly available rapid-tests, the administration believed it would have the tools to sell the country on putting the pandemic in the past.

But the FDA on Friday slowed the approval of the Pfizer shot by weeks as the company awaits more data on the effectiveness of a third booster dose in the youngest kids.

Republicans around the country have long criticized Democrats for what they say was prioritizing unnecessarily harsh restrictions meant to slow the pandemic’s spread over the economy, and for continuing to require masks even when they were perhaps no longer medically necessary.

Democratic Governors Association spokesman David Turner said the party’s shifting approach has been motivated by the evolving virus and not politics. But he said that while Democratic governors have tried to mitigate the effects of the pandemic, many of their Republican colleagues have made things worse by deliberately spreading misinformation about it and the coronavirus vaccine.

“I think Democratic governors are going to have a good story to tell about following science and facts and listening to public health experts to keep people safe from the pandemic,” Turner said about the November elections. “And there’s going to be a story to tell about Republicans actively working to prolong it.”

Allies of the administration have argued that Biden should at least lay out a roadmap for moving back toward normalcy while waiting for the scientists to conclude their work, in a nod to the American people’s frustrations.

According to an AP-NORC last month, just 45% say they approve of Biden’s handling of COVID-19, down from 57% in December and from 66% in July 2021.

Biden on Thursday called the efforts by members of his own party to ease restrictions “probably premature,” though he acknowledged it was a tough call for leaders.

White House officials noted that the Democratic mask roll-backs coincided with sharply declining cases as a two-month nationwide surge in cases from the omicron variant was showing signs of ebbing.

Even as Biden has shown reluctance, top Democrats are applauding the shift.

New York Rep. Sean Patrick Murphy, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the party’s House campaign arm, hailed his state’s Democratic governor for easing masking rules, tweeting “Now, it’s time to give people their lives back. With science as our guide, we’re ready to start getting back to normal.”

The change has come too late to help Democratic political fortunes in some places. Republican Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s upset victory last fall got a boost from parents who were angry about school masking rules.

Youngkin used an executive order on his first day in office to ban school mask mandates, but that has been bogged down by lawsuits from some of the state’s largest school districts. Less than a month later, however, three Democrats in the Virginia Senate sided with Youngkin in helping to pass a bill Wednesday that prohibits public schools from imposing mask requirements on students.

“We are telling parents what to do,” said one of the trio, centrist Democratic state Sen. Joe Morrissey. “And as a legislator, I just don’t believe that I have the audacity to tell them what they can do and cannot do.”

Warnock’s ad stood in stark contrast to a photo from Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Stacey Abrams days earlier, which featured the candidate mask-less in front of a room of school-children with their faces covered. Abrams’ campaign insisted she had followed safety protocols, but later deleted the photo amid near-universal backlash.

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