A nation that had begun to celebrate victory in the exhausting fight against the coronavirus is starting to realize the end is not in sight after all.
As the light at the end of the tunnel recedes, the big political question is who will be punished by a frustrated public.
Daily new COVID-19 cases have risen by more than 50 percent in the last week alone. Major cities including New York and Washington have tightened restrictions.
Meanwhile, the start of the new school year is looming — a pivotal moment for children and parents frazzled by the challenges of pandemic-era learning.
The resurgence of COVID-19 threatens the political fortunes of President Biden, who has up until now been given high marks by the public on the issue.
Some Democrats fixate on two moments they fear will come back to haunt the president.
One was his July 4 White House event at which he said that the country had “gained the upper hand” and that it was “closer than ever to declaring our independence from a deadly virus.”
The other came earlier, when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) abruptly announced that fully vaccinated people could go without masks.
“The notion of declaring pseudo-victory — who thought that was a good idea?” one Democratic strategist said with exasperation. “We have to rethink the messengers and the message.”
This strategist also worried that, having initially taken credit for progress against the pandemic, the White House will be unable “to deflect blame” as things slip off-track.
Biden’s polling numbers on his COVID-19 response are beginning to erode, and his overall ratings are coming down in tandem.
In the RealClearPolitics average, his net job approval Wednesday was plus-7 points (50 percent approval, 43 percent disapproval). His positive margin was twice as large in early April, when millions of COVID-19 vaccines were being plunged into the arms of relieved Americans.
But Biden’s political foes face problems of their own.
Conservative Republicans — notably Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott — have adopted a permissive approach. The result of their purported dedication to “freedom” has been an explosion of coronavirus cases in their states.
Florida had more than 11,000 COVID-19 hospitalizations on Tuesday. As The Associated Press noted, that figure was “breaking last year’s record for the third straight day and up from just 1,000 in mid-June.”
A poll released Tuesday showed DeSantis narrowly trailing Democrat Charlie Crist in a hypothetical match-up as he seeks reelection next year. The survey from St. Pete Polls also showed more Floridians disapproving than approving of DeSantis’s job performance, 48.5 percent to 43.7 percent.
Figures like those will startle allies of DeSantis, a leading contender for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination.
The political firefight around COVID-19 is only getting more intense.
During his White House remarks on Tuesday, Biden said that governors who were not going to help in the fight against the pandemic should “at least get out of the way.” He also said that DeSantis and Abbott were making decisions that were “not good for their constituents.”
On Wednesday, DeSantis volleyed back.
“Joe Biden suggests that if you don’t do lockdown policies, then you should ‘get out of the way.’ But let me tell you this: If you’re coming after the rights of parents in Florida, I’m standing in your way. I’m not going to let you get away with it,” the Florida governor said.
Continuing the tit-for-tat, White House press secretary Jen Psaki tweeted a video of DeSantis’s remarks, adding, “23% of new COVID hospitalizations in the U.S are in Florida, and their hospitals are being overwhelmed again.”
The fiery political back-and-forth does little to actually end the pandemic and get Americans back to something approximating a normal life, however.
Public health experts are scathing of the libertarian-leaning approach of hard-line conservatives. But they also worry that shifting guidance on masking has been a grave error that can be laid at the doors of the CDC, and to some degree the White House itself.
“The single biggest mistake of the Biden presidency when it comes to COVID-19 is the CDC’s premature rolling back of masking requirements back in May,” Leana Wen told this column.
Wen, an emergency physician and public health professor at George Washington University who previously served as Baltimore’s health commissioner, added: “Of course there are other reasons we are seeing this surge. But the primary reason is that people thought this pandemic was over. Why is that the case? It was the Biden administration’s own messaging.”
Lawrence Gostin, a professor at Georgetown Law School who has worked in public health for decades, said that even though he thought the CDC had been a “shining star” in terms of its scientific findings during the pandemic, the agency’s communications had been sorely lacking.
“They have been an utterly disappointing public health agency that has lost the trust of the population,” he said.
Yet Gostin also figuratively rolled his eyes at the kind of rhetoric coming from some conservatives.
“The central argument that these governors are making is that the public is entitled to freedom,” he said. “I think that is fundamentally flawed because the wider freedom is to get COVID under control and to get back to normal.
“If you are against masks and vaccines, you might have a short-term win with people who don’t want to mask and vaccinate, but overall the population in your state doesn’t have the freedom to safely and securely go to do the things they love — dine with friends, have a drink with a coworkers, go to a movie or concert,” he said.
There are signs of some politicians stepping outside their comfort zones.
Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) has expressed regret that he signed a law that banned schools from imposing mask mandates. Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey (R) has condemned people in her own state who have refused to get vaccinated.
But for the most part, politicians and voters alike seem to be digging deeper into their partisan trenches.
As they do so, health experts like Gostin can only voice dismay.
“The nation had been thinking that we were weeks or months away from returning to pretty much normal. And now we are looking at many months, if not well into 2022,” he said.
“The brass ring was right within our grasp, but we refused to grab it.”
Via The Hill