Governors lift COVID-19 restrictions despite risks of new spike

Governors across the country are lifting coronavirus restrictions, including mask mandates and capacity limits, despite warning signs ahead of a new spike from virus variants.

The moves in several states are risky, given that while cases and hospitalizations have declined dramatically in recent weeks, they are still at extremely high levels, and are showing signs of ticking back up again.

More infectious variants of the virus, particularly one first found in the United Kingdom, are adding to the threat of a new spike as they become more prevalent.

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While vaccinations are starting to help get the pandemic under control, they are not yet widely available, leaving a crucial period of perhaps a couple of months until increases in vaccine supply can make a larger dent in the pandemic and help ease a return to normal.

The Biden administration on Friday raised new alarms about the need to keep restrictions in place. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Rochelle WalenskyRochelle WalenskyCNN: Every county in Florida, Arkansas rated 'high transmission' for community spread House Democrats expand probe into political interference into CDC during Trump administration No one wants to say it: We need to mask up again MORE said at a White House briefing that data indicates recent declines in cases “may be stalling” in a “very concerning shift in the trajectory.”

“Things are tenuous,” she said. “Now is not the time to relax restrictions.”

The White House is avoiding a face-off with governors by declining to call out specific states easing restrictions too soon. However, Andy Slavitt, the White House senior adviser for the coronavirus response, made it clear their advice contradicts several states recently moving ahead with downgrading lockdown measures.

“We couldn't say it in stronger terms: We think it is a mistake to take our foot off the gas too early, especially when we are accelerating our vaccination efforts right now,” he said Friday.

Governors on both sides of the aisle are beginning to loosen restrictions, though Republicans have generally been more aggressive.

In Massachusetts, Gov. Charlie Baker (R) on Thursday announced that there will no longer be any capacity limits on restaurants, and that indoor performance venues like concert halls can reopen at 50 percent capacity starting next week.

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Republican governors in Iowa and Montana lifted statewide mask mandates earlier this month.

In Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott (R) said Thursday he is considering removing all statewide coronavirus orders, including the mask mandate.

“We’re working right now on evaluating when we’re gonna be able to remove all statewide orders, and we will be making announcements about that pretty soon,” Abbott said, according to The Texas Tribune.

In a more modest step, Democratic North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper on Wednesday eased some limits, allowing bars at 30 percent capacity and restaurants at 50 percent.

New York Gov. Andrew CuomoAndrew CuomoScarborough pleads with Biden to mandate vaccines for teachers, health workers Could Andrew Cuomo — despite scandals — be re-elected because of Trump? NYC George Floyd statue to be relocated after vandalism MORE (D) allowed indoor dining to reopen at 25 percent capacity in New York City ahead of Valentine's Day.

“Bluntly, yes they are risking yet another spike,” William Hanage, an epidemiologist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said of states lifting restrictions.

“Cases have been dropping, but you have to remember that has been the case in the presence of these mandates,” he said. “As you change to allow more contacts along which transmission can happen, more transmission will inevitably happen.”

During the campaign, the Biden team called for federal involvement in reopening decisions, saying that President BidenJoe BidenTrump endorses Ken Paxton over George P. Bush in Texas attorney general race GOP lawmakers request Cuba meeting with Biden For families, sending money home to Cuba shouldn't be a political football MORE would “direct the CDC to provide specific evidence-based guidance,” for “when to open or close certain businesses, bars, restaurants, and other spaces,” based on the level of transmission in the surrounding area.

Now that Biden is president, though, it is unclear if the administration still plans to issue such guidance.

The White House referred questions to the CDC, which did not respond to a request for comment.

The politics of reopening are always fraught, given the pressure from business owners and others who do not support the restrictions. The Biden administration has taken heavier fire on the issue of schools reopening, where Republicans accuse the president of not pushing hard enough given pressure from teachers unions.

Slavitt on Friday noted that ultimately governors make their own decisions, but the administration can provide input.

“While we at the federal government don't control the policies made by state governors, we do talk to them on a very regular basis, and talk to their staffs on a daily basis,” Slavitt said.

Coronavirus restrictions have taken a heavy economic toll on businesses like bars and restaurants, raising pressure on governors to ease limits.

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As vaccinations make progress, the most vulnerable people most likely to be hospitalized are becoming protected at higher rates, helping limit concerns about hospital capacity.

“As hospital capacity concerns lift you have more flexibility with those types of restrictions,” said Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.

Baker, the Massachusetts governor, pointed to hospital capacity and vaccinations of the most vulnerable in justifying his decision to lift restrictions.

“It means you'll see, hopefully, less of those folks who are prone to end up being hospitalized, and God forbid, passing away, end up getting hospitalized at all,” he said at a press conference on Thursday. “And one of the big things we have always worried about with respect to COVID from the beginning is hospitalization rates.”

Almost 60 percent of people over 75 have received at least one vaccine shot, and almost 50 percent of those over 65 have, according to the White House. But that still leaves significant percentages of those high-risk age groups who remain vulnerable.

Even young and healthy people, while less likely to, can face serious consequences, including “long COVID-19” symptoms that last for months.

Josh Michaud, associate director for global health policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation, said indoor bars and restaurants are “exactly the types of environments” where the virus spreads most easily.

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“One can understand the feeling that we need to get beyond this, but we still haven't reached the end of the road with the virus,” he said.

While cases have declined dramatically since January, with peaks of as many as 250,000 new cases per day, they are still at extremely high levels, and showing signs of plateauing around 70,000 per day, and maybe even rising again.

Hospitalizations have likewise fallen, but there are still over 52,000 people in the hospital with the virus, according to the COVID Tracking Project.

If the country can get through a few more months, until vaccinations are more widespread, the situation could be much better by summer.

“Summer in the US will be great,” tweeted Walid Gellad, associate professor of medicine at the University of Pittsburgh. “What happens between now and memorial day is up in [the] air.”