Governors grapple with vaccine mandates ahead of midterms

Michigan Office of the Governor via AP

Incumbent Democratic governors facing reelection next year are being forced to deal with the issue of vaccine mandates as opposition to some measures rise across the county.

While the Biden administration has continued to tout the mandates for federal workers and large-scale employers, some Democratic governors appear to have distanced themselves from the initiatives.

Last week, a local Michigan outlet reported that Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) told business leaders in Montcalm County that she understood concerns about the mandates, adding that if a federal mandate were to go into effect, “we’re going to lose state employees.”

“That’s why I haven’t proposed a mandate at the state level. Some states have. We have not. We’re waiting to see what happens in court,” Whitmer said.

And last month, Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly (D) signed legislation into law that would make it easier for federal workers in the state to keep their jobs despite federal mask mandates. Additionally, the legislation provides exemptions for religious, moral and federal concerns about the vaccine.

President Biden’s vaccine mandate states that any business with more than 100 employees must begin requiring workers to either get a COVID-19 vaccine or undergo regular testing for the virus by Jan. 4.

The mandate has been halted in federal court. Recent polling, meanwhile, shows a rising opposition to certain mandates. An Axios-Ipsos survey released on Tuesday found that Americans tend to support mask and vaccine mandates in the workplace, but 51 percent of Americans said they support making it illegal for companies to deny employment and service to unvaccinated individuals.

The developments come as Democrats in various elected offices have taken a softer approach to the issue of vaccine mandates. Last week, Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin (W.Va.) and Jon Tester (Mont.) joined 50 Republican senators in voting to overturn the president’s COVID-19 testing mandate for businesses. It is unlikely that the Republican-led measure will become law, but the vote was a symbol of the growing discontent surrounding the mandates. 

“Ultimately at the end of the day, Democratic governors are late to the party,” said Republican Governors Association spokeswoman Joanna Rodriguez. “Ultimately at the end of the day, these governors are going to be held accountable for what the Biden administration is doing.”

A Monmouth University poll released on Wednesday found that 60 percent of respondents said they feel worn out by the pandemic and the changes they have made in their daily lives, with 36 percent saying they feel worn out “a lot” and 24 percent saying they feel worn out “a little.”

Additionally, 45 percent of adults have felt angry because of the pandemic and changes they have been forced to make in their daily lives. Another 55 percent said they do not feel angry about the changes at all.

In New York, Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) has said she will not implement a mandate for all private sector workers in New York to get the jab but announced an indoor mask mandate for all public places without a vaccine requirement. Hochul has otherwise left the vaccine mandates for private sector workers largely up to localities in the state.

“I support the local government leaders to execute the policies to fight COVID as they believe will be most helpful to deal with this pandemic in their own jurisdictions,” Hochul said last week.

The state does have a vaccine mandate in effect for health care workers, which the Supreme Court declined to block on Monday. A group of doctors, nurses and health care personnel had sought religious exemptions from the state’s mandate, which was enacted this summer.

Many Democratic governors have largely relaxed their stances when it comes to mask mandates as well. Colorado Gov. Jared Polis (D) said in an interview on Monday that he will not impose a statewide mask mandate in response to the new omicron variant because the coronavirus vaccine has led to “the end of the medical emergency.”

“You don’t tell people to wear a jacket when they go out in winter and force them to,” Polis told Colorado Public Radio. “If they get frostbite, it’s their own darn fault. If you haven’t been vaccinated, that’s your choice. I respect that. But it’s your fault when you’re in the hospital with COVID.”

In Connecticut, Gov. Ned Lamont (D) said last week that the state will leave mask mandates up to localities, though the state does require those who are unvaccinated to wear masks.

On the other side of the aisle, Republicans have pushed ahead with challenging the Biden administration’s vaccine mandates. Last month, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey (R) and Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) together sued in the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta, arguing that Biden did not have the authority to impose the medical policy.

“At the end of the day, Republican governors are fighting to make sure that their states have a say and control,” Rodriguez said. “The one-size-fits-all Biden mandates aren’t working. They’re not something the people are eager to see.”

Republicans have also hit Democrats over what they say is a different treatment of those who are not vaccinated. 

“Democrats need to be careful of creating this second-class citizenship where you have folks who want to work, who candidly have been working through the pandemic, some of them are nurses and doctors who put their lives on the line when people were staying home and trying to flatten the curve,” Rodriguez said.

Democrats, on the other hand, argue that their governors are cognizant of the safety risks that come with the pandemic and have accused Republicans of using the issue to galvanize their own base.

“Democratic Governors have led the way in combating the pandemic, and the results show it,” said Democratic Governors Association spokesman David Turner, referring to a Johns Hopkins University study from March of this year that showed that states with Republican governors had higher coronavirus incidence and mortality rates from June 2020 to December 2020.

“Instead of basing any decision on politics, their recommendations use the best science available to implement evidence-based policies that will work best in their states and for their constituents,” he continued. “While the execution may vary state to state, there is no ambiguity about the overarching goals: get the economy growing and keep people safe. Meanwhile, Republicans promote dangerous anti-vax rhetoric or deny the pandemic still exists, even as more than a thousand Americans die every day. The contrast in leadership, and the lack thereof, could not be starker.”

Last month’s gubernatorial race in Virginia could provide some insight into how the issue of mask and vaccine mandates could play out in 2022 races. Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe called for a number of vaccine mandates for students, teachers and businesses. While then-candidate and current Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin (R) encouraged Virginians to get the vaccine, he maintained throughout the course of the campaign that ultimately it was an individual choice.

But unlike other Republican governors, like DeSantis, Youngkin will not move to block local mask and vaccine mandates.

“Localities are going to have to make decisions the way the law works and that is going to be up to individual decisions but, again, from the governor’s office, you won’t see mandates from me,” Youngkin told WRIC-TV in Richmond last month.

Youngkin also told the outlet that he did not believe that Biden “has the authority to dictate to everyone that we have to take the vaccine.”

“I think every state needs to do what’s right for their dynamic and their population,” Rodriguez said. “Rural areas and people who work outside are very different from people who work in cities and offices and in cubicles.” 

Tags Brian Kemp Election 2022 Glenn Youngkin Gretchen Whitmer Jared Polis Joe Biden Joe Manchin Jon Tester Kathy Hochul Kay Ivey Laura Kelly midterms Ned Lamont Ron DeSantis Terry McAuliffe vaccine mandates

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