WASHINGTON — Jennifer Kaiser has had COVID-19 four times. But with cases on the rise across the country, the Florida Panhandle resident says she has no intention of masking up even if that means risking a fifth infection with the virus.
“We live in a free country, and I think people have the free will to choose,” Kaiser told USA TODAY.
“If I choose to go and be around other people, and I know that COVID is out there, then that’s my choice,” said Kaiser, a registered Republican and mom of seven who lives in Santa Rosa County, Florida.
The spike in infections and hospitalizations has revived a debate over wearing face masks, with opinions ranging from support for their benefits to skepticism about whether they work to outright hostility toward the face coverings.
It’s a fight Republicans are amplifying, not one Democrats in Congress or the White House are embracing, ahead of the 2024 presidential election.
To hear Republican officeholders and GOP candidates on the presidential campaign trail, one might think mask mandates are spreading everywhere after an elementary school in a Maryland suburb outside of Washington this week required students to again wear N95 face masks following a classroom COVID outbreak.
“This is crazy,” Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders said on X, formerly known as Twitter. “Rest assured that as long as I’m Governor, Arkansas will not force our kids to wear masks in school.”
Yet far from embracing mask mandates, the White House is trying to stay out of the politically fraught issue, arguing it is up to local officials to decide whether they want to follow mask guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It’s a marked departure from the COVID-19 politics of a few years ago, when President Joe Biden actively encouraged Americans to mask up.
“It is up to the schools,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Wednesday. “It is the decisions of the districts to decide what they want to do with the guidelines that they’ve been provided by CDC.”
She stressed there are no federal mandates: “These are guidelines. To be very, very clear: These are guidelines.”
Most of the country has ditched masks, polling shows
Convinced that most Americans have no appetite to return to masks or social distancing, Republicans have highlighted a growing list of mask mandates in schools, hospitals and other public spaces. Most of the nation isn’t affected by the policies, nor is any sort of federal mandate under consideration.
U.S. Sen. J.D. Vance, R-Ohio, introduced legislation to ban all federal mask mandates. “This is coming back unless we stop it from happening,” Vance warned.
Much of the country − with COVID vaccines available for protection against the virus − long ago ditched their face masks.
Only 12% of Americans said they wear masks outside their home regularly, according to a Yahoo News/YouGov poll last month, down from 27% in January and 60% in January 2022. Fourteen percent of respondents said they “think less” of those who wear masks.
“Here’s my real theory on mask mandates,” said Rick Cannon, 69 from Cape Coral, Florida, who invented a lockout device for circuit breakers. “If you get the vaccine and the vaccine works, then you’re protected. Why would you try to force other people to wear a mask because you’re already protected?”
In response to an uptick of COVID cases, very few communities, mostly in areas that lean Democratic, have brought back masks in recent days. Hospitalizations nationally as a result of COVID were up 15.7% between Aug. 20 and Aug. 26, according to the CDC, and deaths from COVID were up 17.6%.
In Silver Spring, Maryland, outside of Washington, Rosemary Hills Elementary School reinstated a mask mandate for students and staff on Tuesday after at least three people in one class tested positive for COVID.
New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, a Democrat, announced a plan Tuesday to distribute N95 masks to students for free, but as the school year begins, but they aren’t required to wear them.
The healthcare company Kaiser Permanente put in place a mask mandate in August for staff, patients and visitors at its facilities in Santa Rosa, California. And in Atlanta, Morris Brown College announced late last month that it would require students and employees to wear face masks on campus for two weeks − a measure that was later lifted.
Jenny Longhurst, a 60-year-old operations manager at Beyond Productions in Los Angeles, who has battled COVID-19 twice, told USA TODAY that she supports mask mandates.
“I had it quite badly,” said Longhurst, a Democrat and mother of twin boys. “So I don’t think it’s too big of an imposition to just wear masks to try and keep everyone safe.”
Biden’s new nonchalant attitude on masks is telling
Biden flouted COVID-19 mask protocols Wednesday when he arrived at a White House event holding, not wearing, a mask. The moment came just days after he was in close contact with his wife, first lady Jill Biden, who tested positive for COVID-19 on Monday.
The president even joked about not wearing it like he should − a strong signal he has no plans to return the country to COVID restrictions of the past.
“Don’t tell them I didn’t have it on when I walked in,” Biden said, openly violating the CDC recommendation for individuals who were in close contact with someone infected with COVID to wear a high-quality mask when indoors and around others for 10 days.
Some Americans are skeptical N95 and other high-quality masks stop the spread of COVID, despite the advice of the CDC and medical professionals.
“Personally, I think that the masks aren’t going to do anything to protect me very much,” said Katie Hodge, 33, a registered independent from Sacramento, California, who works as a personal assistant in real estate.
Hodge has a 6-year-old daughter who was too young to be in school at the height of the pandemic in 2020 but was in daycare where masks were required. Hodge said she would not like to see school mask mandates return and would prefer measures such as social distancing.
“I think it’s really mean to make kids wear masks,” Hodge said. “My heart broke every day because she cried and cried and cried that it was hard for her to breathe when she was running around.”
A hodgepodge of COVID protocols in schools nationwide
More than three years after the height of the pandemic, the CDC still recommends that school districts require masks in areas with high levels of COVID-19 hospitalizations. Only 15 counties met the threshold nationwide as of late August, according to the Washington Post.
Students and teachers with “known or suspected exposure” should wear a mask for 10 days after they’re exposed even if they’re vaccinated, according to the agency. But anyone who chooses to wear a mask, the agency says, “should be supported in their decision to do so at any COVID-19 hospital admission level, including low.”
How schools districts follow the guidance varies wildly
A junior high school in rural Cuba, Alabama, advised students, employees and visitors a few weeks ago to mask up after a slow rise in COVID cases. Talladega City Schools, also in Alabama, made a similar recommendation.
Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Unified School District, once known for some of the harshest COVID protocols in the nation, is now advising students to still come to school even if they’re “mildly sick” to combat chronic rates of absenteeism.
Eleven laws have passed over the last two years to ban school districts from enforcing mask mandates, according to an analysis from EdWeek.
“Probably the most important thing from a school perspective is that messaging about keeping children home when they’re sick,” said Lynn Nelson, president-elect of the National Association of School Nurses.
Trump and other Republicans embrace a new COVID fight
Despite the White House’s reluctance to embrace masks during the ongoing COVID resurgence, Republican presidential candidates are working to make mandates an issue in their nomination fight, appealing to conservative voters who are still angered by COVID-era restrictions.
“The left-wing lunatics are trying very hard to bring back COVID lockdowns and mandates,” said former president and GOP front-runner Donald Trump in a recent video.
He added: “Gee whiz, you know what else is coming? An election.”
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, returning to the campaign trail this week after tending to hurricane damage in his state, also hit mask mandates.
In a Facebook post, DeSantis said “they want to muzzle your children,” and vowed political retribution for mandates. “When I’m president, there will be a reckoning for the harm they’ve done to kids in pursuit of a political agenda,” DeSantis said.
Other candidates also jumped on the anti-mask bandwagon. Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley described mandates as attacks on parental rights. “We don’t co-parent with school boards and we don’t co-parent with the government,” she said before a campaign event in New Hampshire.
In Congress, Senate Republicans introduced legislation to stop future federal mask mandates, even though the Biden administration hasn’t shown any signs of proposing a nationwide mandate. Although a previous U.S. travel mandate − overturned by a federal judge in 2022 − required masks on planes and trains, the U.S. never had a blanket mask policy for public schools and other public spaces.
Biden ended the federal government’s national and public health emergency declarations in May as Republicans in Congress threatened to end it immediately through legislative action.
Vance, R-Ohio., who introduced the bill banning federal mask mandates, dubbed the “Freedom to Breathe Act,” said if the White House and Democrats are not pushing for new mandates, his legislation should be allowed a vote on the floor.
Vance attempted to fast-track his legislation Thursday afternoon in the upper chamber, but failed to push through the bill past Democratic objections. Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., among those who objected, called it a “red herring” and “misleading” on the Senate floor.
“My bill gives you a perfect opportunity to go on the record with that fact,” Vance told reporters. “The concern here is not that there’s gonna be a federal mask mandate tomorrow. I think the concern is that if you continue to have this massive national freakout over a small spike in COVID cases, we can have (mandates) next month and we’re trying to get ahead of that fact.”
Sen. Mike Braun, R-Ind., a co-sponsor of Vance’s bill, echoed those sentiments: “Better be prepared rather than complain about it after the fact.”