August 4, 2021

Today seemed to mark a popular backlash against Republican lawmakers who have been downplaying the coronavirus pandemic. The Delta variant of the deadly virus is ripping through unvaccinated populations in the U.S. with an average of 85,000 new cases a day, numbers that rival those of February, before we had accessible vaccines. One in three cases in the nation comes from either Florida or Texas.

Lawmakers in South Carolina, Iowa, Florida, Oklahoma, Texas, Arizona, and Utah have prohibited schools from requiring masks, and South Carolina, Iowa, Florida, Montana, Arizona, South Dakota, Texas, and Tennessee prohibit local governments from doing so.

Yesterday, President Joe Biden called out governors, especially Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and Texas Governor Greg Abbott, for banning mask mandates and refusing to require the vaccine. At a press conference, Biden said “to these governors, ‘Please, help.’ But if you aren’t going to help, at least get out of the way of the people who are trying to do the right thing. Use your power to save lives.”

Today DeSantis responded: “I am standing in your way.” After sitting on Biden’s criticism for almost a day, DeSantis could find as a response only an attack on Biden for allegedly ignoring the “border crisis.” DeSantis blamed Florida’s devastating virus numbers on immigrants coming over the nation’s border with Mexico into Texas.

The recent attention to the methods of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who rose to power by stoking anti-immigrant hatred and who continues to whip up a frenzy over immigration despite the fact that refugees coming into Hungary have dropped to unremarkable levels, shows the Republican fallback on immigrant caravans to distract from their own scandals in a new light.

In fact, our southern border remains closed because of public health directives put in place by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Unaccompanied minors are admitted so that they do not become victims of gangs or sex traffickers, and their numbers likely hit an all-time high of about 19,000 in July. Those children are processed and then transferred to facilities run by the Department of Health and Human Services, which then finds suitable foster situations for them while they await immigration hearings.

Interestingly in terms of the timing of DeSantis’s outburst, today the Mexican government sued a number of U.S.-based gun manufacturers for lax controls that permit illegal weapons to flow over the border. A 2016 study by the U.S. Government Accountability Office showed that about 70% of the weapons seized in Mexico came from the United States.

Back in the U.S., the president has mandated vaccines in the federal government and has asked private employers to require vaccines. Google, Walmart, Disney World, and Microsoft, among many others, including hospitals and more than 400 private universities, are requiring masks or vaccines. So is Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker, who today issued a mask requirement for schools and a vaccine mandate for workers in state prisons and other facilities.

By Labor Day, the Food and Drug Administration is expected to give final approval to coronavirus vaccines, reassuring people reluctant to get the vaccine that it is safe.

Increasingly, people dying of Covid-19 or their survivors are publicly begging their friends and neighbors to get the vaccine. In addition to videos and facebook posts, a six-minute television segment on CBS This Morning featured Republican Representative Julia Letlow of Louisiana, who lost her husband to the disease in December. She is using her story to try to change people’s minds about refusing the vaccine.

Implied in these calls to ignore the disinformation out there about the vaccine is criticism of those Republican leaders who have pushed that disinformation.

Rising case numbers put lawmakers who have downplayed the virus in a tight spot. A new poll today from St. Pete Polls shows that DeSantis’s popularity has fallen behind that of a Democratic rival, Charlie Crist, in the 2022 governor’s race. Forty-nine percent of Floridians disapprove of DeSantis’s job performance, while only 44% approve. He is in positive numbers only with voters older than 70. In contrast to the older folks, most voters disapprove of his opposition to masks in schools.

Other Republican governors have expressed regret that they were so quick to outlaw masks. Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson today said he wished he hadn’t signed into law a measure banning state and local mask mandates. He has called the legislature into special session to change the law, claiming that he signed the previous measure because “I knew it would be overridden by the legislature if I didn't sign it.”

The new spike in infections has meant an uptick in vaccinations, with numbers matching those of early July. On Tuesday, Jeff Zients, the White House’s coronavirus response coordinator, reported that Louisiana has seen a 302% increase in the average number of newly vaccinated per day; Mississippi, 250%; Alabama, 215%; and Arkansas, 206%. On Tuesday, almost a month late, the nation met the goal President Joe Biden had set for July 4 of having at least one vaccine shot in 70% of eligible Americans. About 49% of all eligible Americans have been fully vaccinated.

Today, two parents of school-aged children in Arkansas sued the state over its law banning the use of masks in schools. They are seeking immediate “protection from an irrational act of legislative madness that threatens K-12 public school children with irreparable harm.” “Without immediate intervention by the Arkansas judiciary,” the lawsuit says, “the restrictions imposed on state and local officials by Act 1002 will result in many more Arkansas children becoming very sick, and some of them will inevitably die.”