States lift COVID-19 restrictions, set off debate.

A look at where things are.

I’m Isaac Saul, and you’re reading Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum — then “my take.” You can can reach me anytime by replying to this email. If someone forwarded you this email, they’re asking you to sign up. You can do that by clicking here.


Today’s read: 12 minutes.

Where we are with coronavirus and social distancing restrictions, a question about ranks in Congress and an important story about the housing market.


Reader feedback.

Yesterday I wrote that the American Rescue Plan introduced “changes to requirements for declaring money that gig workers now face. Democrats keep saying that the 'rich 1%' will help cover the cost of this bill — but this kind of change is proof that’s a lie. Democrats have to find revenue and they’re pulling it from everywhere, but the last people they should be piling taxes on are gig economy workers. It’s expected to cost Uber drivers, DoorDash workers and Airbnb hosts an estimated $8.4 billion through 2031.”

A few readers objected to this framing, noting that gig economy workers have largely been let off the hook by not having to face the same tax reporting that other contract employees experience. I think that's a fair piece of feedback, and there's also the argument that this is a long-term play to pressure companies like Uber to treat gig workers as “employees” (meaning offering health care benefits). I still think this is bad timing to be closing a tax loophole leveraged by low-wage workers, but felt additional context was needed. You can read more about this part of the American Rescue Plan here.


Quick hits

  1. The House of Representatives looks on track to pass the latest version of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, moving past frustrations with changes to the bill that were made in the Senate. (Wall Street Journal, subscription)

  2. New guidelines from the CDC say people who are fully vaccinated can safely gather together. “If you want to gather indoors with relatives or friends who aren’t fully vaccinated, that also poses much lower risk now that you’re vaccinated — so you can do it,” Vox reports. “But the risk is not as low as when everyone is vaccinated, so you shouldn’t do it if anyone at increased risk of severe Covid-19 might be affected.” (Vox)

  3. Thousands of migrant children are straining the capacities of United States detention facilities along the border with Mexico as the number of children in custody has tripled to 3,250 in just two weeks. (The New York Times, subscription)

  4. More than two-thirds of Americans aged 75 and older have received at least one dose of the coronavirus vaccine, as have those 65-74 years old, according to CDC data. The successfully targeted vaccine push to elderly Americans has families and health care workers breathing a sigh of relief. (Axios)

  5. The Biden administration gave temporary protected status to thousands of Venezuelans who fled their homeland for the U.S. The program is a major shift in U.S. policy from the Trump administration and could impact as many as 320,000 people. (The Los Angeles Times)


A year ago today…

We released a newsletter headlined “Coronavirus touches Congress.” I was writing from New Orleans (my last trip before lockdown), the New York Stock Exchange had just shut down trading after the S&P 500 fell 7% at opening, and an attendee of the Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC) had tested positive for coronavirus after shaking hands with Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Rep. Paul Gosar (R-AZ), among others. Just 35 Americans had died from or with coronavirus.


What D.C. is talking about.

COVID-19 restrictions. States across the U.S. have continued to steadily lift social distancing restrictions and mask-wearing requirements as the number of vaccinated Americans rises and the number of coronavirus cases goes down. The lifting of these restrictions was punctuated last week when Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced his state would be “100% open” starting March 10th, and lifted the statewide mask mandate.

Though Abbott made some headlines, he was far from alone. Shortly after Texas’s announcement, Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves lifted the mask mandate and restrictions on businesses in his state. On Monday, Wyoming announced it was lifting its mask mandates and that it “would allow bars, restaurants, gyms and theaters to return to normal operations in coming weeks,” according to ABC7.

Arizona, California and South Carolina all eased restrictions last week, too: Arizona is requiring masks but has ended capacity limits on businesses; California is reopening amusement parks, outdoor sports and live events; South Carolina lifted its mask mandate in government buildings but asked restaurants to keep enforcing their mask rules.

While the restrictions are being lifted, some health experts — including many from these same states — are urging caution. “We’ve just now recently experienced the worst surge,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the Director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said on Friday. He emphasized that we’ve plateaued between 60,000 and 70,000 new cases per day. “When you have that much of viral activity in a plateau, it almost invariably means that you are at risk for another spike.”

Here’s a snapshot of the data since last April:

So, is it too soon to be lifting restrictions? Is it the right time to be raising them slowly? Below, we’ll take a look at some reactions across the political spectrum.


What the left is saying.

The left is extremely critical of states lifting their mask mandates, and cautiously optimistic about the states that are slowly rolling things back. Generally speaking, the left is concerned about more contagious variants, another wave, and wants to wait to lift restrictions until more people are vaccinated.

The Washington Post editorial board said Abbott was “gambling with the health of his state and beyond.”

“On Monday, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Rochelle Walensky, warned that the recent declines in daily new infections and deaths had stalled, a worrisome sign just as new virus variants are spreading,” the board wrote. “If there was any lesson from the disastrous push by then-President Donald Trump last year to open up — which triggered a massive Sun Belt surge of infection in Texas, Florida and Arizona — it is not to lift restrictions too soon.

“The governor’s decision may cheer those feeling rebellious, fatigued and impatient with the year-long pandemic restrictions,” it added. “But the result of opening too soon will be viral spread, and more suffering. Only 12.9 percent of the Texas population has received one or more doses of vaccine. They and others previously sickened may enjoy some immunity, but a huge swath of the state’s population remains vulnerable. The winter holidays and the third surge were awful. A fourth surge — which could spread beyond Texas — is the last thing the country needs just as vaccines are being rolled out. Mr. Abbott is throwing a match on kindling.”

James Downie wrote that “a year ago this week,” Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves responded to news of Mississippi’s first COVID-19 case by taking a family trip to Europe and urging Mississippieans to “trust in the ‘power of prayer.’ By the end of the month, the state had the highest hospitalization rate in the country.

“Then, in August, after thousands of cases and hundreds of deaths, Reeves issued a statewide mask mandate — only to lift it again less than two months later,” Downie wrote. “Only in December [after a surge of cases] did the governor reimpose a mandate for much of the state. This week, Reeves and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) lifted their states’ mask mandates and restrictions on businesses’ operating capacity. Like Reeves, Abbott is relaxing rules once again despite past fiascos: The mask mandate the Texas governor is now lifting was imposed last July after his attempt to ‘reopen’ the state was cut short by skyrocketing case numbers.

“At this point, Republican efforts to abandon mask mandates cannot be dismissed as differing views on individual rights. They show instead a determined disregard for Americans’ lives.”


What the right is saying.

The right is split over the decisions to lift mask mandates, but is critical of the way Republican governors are covered in the media compared to their Democratic counterparts. Generally speaking, the right is more concerned about giving businesses a reprieve, believes the pandemic is nearing its end and thinks it’s reasonable for states to be lifting their mandates.

In Spectator, William Murchinson wrote that Texas and its 29 million people are “poised to move out of the heavy shadow of government control over their lives and movements as we head towards what we must hope is the late stages of this so-called ‘war’ against COVID-19.”

“The doctors-facts-science mantras have become familiar over the past year,” he wrote. “The experts tell us, expertly, what we need to know, and we do it. At least until all this science starts to fog up our mental windshields and we, the people, start to wear out. Our irritability mounts; our attention wanes; the guide-rope in our mouth starts to chafe… He [Abbott] senses at the same time the exasperation felt all over the country, after a year of masquerade that was supposed originally to have been a period of three or, at most, maybe, four months. He knows the economic bite the pandemic has taken out of jobs and economic growth. How long was long enough? Another half year? Longer still?

“Florida’s and South Dakota’s recent economic reopenings, engineered by popular Republican governors, preceded Texas’s without inspiring it,” Murchinson added. “Reopening was coming anyway to Texas and its diversified, if pandemically pinched, economy. Immediately upon Abbott’s March 2 announcement neighboring Louisiana announced major loosening of its restrictions, and nearby Mississippi declared itself open for business. The loosening goes on even in Massachusetts, where Gov. Charlie Baker has opened restaurants to full capacity. Montana and Iowa have abolished face-mask requirements. This unmasking business has legs, whether the experts like it or not.”

In The Wall Street Journal, Allysia Finley cheered on the “vindication” of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. “He was among the first to lift his state lockdown, adopting something resembling Sweden’s strategy of protecting the vulnerable while keeping businesses and schools open,” and he was “pilloried” for it.

“The Covid death risk increases enormously with each decade of age. More than 80% of Covid deaths in the U.S. have occurred among seniors over 65. They make up a larger share of Florida’s population than any other state except Maine. Based on demographics, Florida’s per-capita Covid death rate would be expected to be one of the highest in the country… Nope. Florida’s death rate is in the middle of the pack and only slightly higher than in California, which has a much younger population. Florida’s death rate among seniors is about 20% lower than California’s and 50% lower than New York’s, based on Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.

Unlike New York, DeSantis focused his efforts on protecting nursing homes and began a phased reopening last spring, Finley said. “Florida’s cases started climbing in June as people socialized more, including at graduation parties, summer cookouts and on Father’s Day. Experts and the media castigated the governor for reopening too fast and too soon… But cases spiked across the Sun Belt, including in California, which maintained much stricter business restrictions. Still, political pressure intensified on Mr. DeSantis to shut down his state again. He refused.

“The fall and winter lockdowns don’t appear to have made any difference in the virus spread,” she concluded. “Between Nov. 1 and Feb. 28, there were 5.8 new cases per 100 people in New York, 6.4 in California, and only 5 in Florida, where businesses could stay open at full capacity. But the economic impact of the lockdowns has been enormous. Employment declined by 4.6% in Florida in 2020, compared with 8% in California and 10.4% in New York. Leisure and hospitality jobs fell 15% in Florida, vs. 30% in California and 39% in New York.”


My take.

The conservative writer Ramesh Ponnuru wrote what is probably my favorite piece on this: Virus Keeps Refusing to Follow Anyone’s Partisan Script: “The more partisan the narrative, the worse it has fared,” he wrote. “Liberals have spent much of the pandemic fretting about red-state irresponsibility. But the four states with the highest percentage of Covid deaths all vote consistently for Democratic presidential candidates. Florida, though a consistent target of progressive criticism, has a death rate well below the national average. Some conservatives, for their part, predicted that we’d stop hearing about the pandemic as soon as the election was over. Instead, the deadliest weeks came after it, and both politicians and the press kept talking about it.”

As I said last week, there’s a difference between “lifting a mask mandate” and “telling everyone it’s okay not to wear masks.” Gov. Abbott has been trying to walk this line rather unsuccessfully: "We are still urging people to continue to wear the mask, to continue to use the safe practices that they have mastered over the past year," Abbott told Houston's ABC13. "They know the right thing to do."

The question, obviously, is “do they?” Texas and Mississippi both had catastrophic attempts at reopening this summer, so it’s no wonder Texas health care workers are penning op-eds in major newspapers begging Abbott to hold off on lifting the mask mandate a little longer.

In a perfect world, Abbott’s decision would make sense. Case numbers are falling, vaccine supply in Texas is robust, warm months are coming and Texans in most places across the state can probably go about most of their business safely without a mask mandate. But it’s not a perfect world, and this moment still requires some sacrifice and caution. It’s a world where essential workers and wealthier, healthier, maskless Texans are going to have to interact at restaurants, grocery stores, and other confined spaces. Is Texas at a point where it has reduced the risk enough to make that happen? The “experts tell us expertly,” as Murchinson says, that it isn’t. And the specter of last summer’s failed reopenings still looms large.

Abbott’s decision aside, there’s no doubt that a lot of “blue” states and the “pro-blue” pundits still seem to be looking down their noses at places like Florida and Texas. And it’s not always justified. Gov. DeSantis has overseen a fairly successful phased reopening in Florida (aside from raiding a data scientist’s home and allegedly authorizing vaccines to ultra-rich residents), one that has bucked a lot of narratives and cut through doomsday warnings from the press and health experts. It also has the fourth-most per capita cases of any state as of this writing.

Of course, every state and every region is different, and it’s really difficult to say which approach is working best and why. That’s part of what makes COVID-19 so maddening. Florida, for instance, is hot and humid year-round, which makes outdoor gatherings and outdoor dining easier, two things that would almost certainly correlate with fewer cases. It’s also led to people coming to Florida for things like spring break, getting COVID-19, and then bringing it back to wherever they came from.

South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana, Nebraska, and Indiana all have had similarly loose restrictions as Florida, and all have fared far worse than most states at a per capita level. The disparity in results for states who have approached COVID-19 similarly could be an argument for state-level rather than national-level guidance. But infected people taking the virus across state lines could be an argument for the national-level guidance rather than state-level. 

Here’s where I land: this last year has been truly dreadful. I hate wearing a mask, I hate not being able to do anything indoors with friends, I hate the constant contradictions and confusing directions and hypocrisy of so many government officials. But I also think it’s clear we’re a few months away from being out of the woods, and lifting mask mandates is a strong green light for people to “go back to normal”; even if you tell them to keep wearing their masks three days later on a small Houston news station.

It’s easy for me to make my judgment given the situation I’m in. My business isn’t going under or bleeding money, I’m not waiting for an unemployment check or a loan to survive. I can mostly perform my job from home. I’m rooting for Texas, Mississippi and the other states diving in headfirst — we all should be. If it works with little repercussion, it’ll be a signal others can follow suit. Yet it still feels too soon. As a country, we’re close. And the better days seem right around the corner. But caution should still be the dominant mindset, especially from the government.


Your questions, answered.

Q: Are there reasons why we have “ranks” amongst Congress people? Do higher-ranking members have different responsibilities/powers?

— Joe, Chicago, Illinois

Tangle: Generally speaking, ranks in Congress are ways to divvy up some of the most important responsibilities. You can see the House leadership board here and the Senate leadership board here. Both sides hold elections to choose the leaders who are responsible for steering the entire caucus toward accomplishing the party’s agenda. Some might take a primary role in fundraising, others in drafting legislation, others in winning over members to vote for a certain bill, others in leading specific committees relative to their expertise.

They also signify the representative power structure of Congress (i.e. the highest-ranking person in the House of Representatives, the Speaker, will be a member of the majority party). 

The leadership in the House of Representatives, the lower chamber, is made up of a few roles: Speaker of the House (elected by the entire House of Representatives), Minority Leader (the highest-ranking person of the minority party), Majority Leader (the highest-ranking person of the majority party, but second to the Speaker), and then the Majority/Minority Whips (the people typically known to help effect passage of a party’s legislative agenda). These ranks and roles are usually decided by intra-party votes.

There are also conference chairs (for instance, Rep. Liz Cheney is the No. 3 Republican as the Republican Conference Chairman) and on the Democratic side there is an Assistant Speaker, who in this case is Rep. Katherine Clark of Massachusetts.

There are also less formal rankings amongst both Democrats and Republicans, which sometimes come out in different ways. Traditionally speaking, Democrats put a lot of stock in seniority, while Republicans often structure their leadership or give preference to members based on fundraising ability. 

Similarly, the Senate has its leadership decided by a majority vote at the beginning of every new Congress (every two years). 

You may also hear a lot about the “ranking member” during happenings on The Hill. This actually isn’t specifically referring to someone’s party rank, but instead referring to the highest-ranking person of the minority party that is on a specific committee. For instance, the Senate Budget Committee has a chair — in this case, a Democrat, since Democrats are in the majority. The “ranking member” on the Senate Budget Committee would be the highest-ranking Republican, as a member of the minority party.

Usually, if you see me referring to the “ranking member” of Congress or something along those lines, I’m referencing their position in party leadership. 

Have a question you want to ask? Just reply to this email and write in.


A story that matters.

“The booming housing market helped stave off economic collapse in 2020. But soaring prices are starting to worry policymakers, who fear the market could lock a generation of would-be buyers out of homeownership.” That’s the lede from a new Politico story on concerns about a housing market that saw a 14% increase in prices between January 2020 and January 2021, with sales jumping 24%, despite the fact unemployment was twice as high at that time of year as it was the year prior. The average home is now on the market for just three weeks, with demand unlike anything people in the space have seen since the data was first tracked in 1999. (Politico)


Numbers.

  • 669. The number of COVID-19 deaths in the United States that were reported on Monday.

  • 1.7 million. The doses of the COVID-19 vaccine that were administered on Monday in the United States.

  • 7%. The percentage of Americans who said they plan to stop wearing masks in public after they’ve been vaccinated, according to a new Axios/Ipsos poll.

  • 81%. The percentage of Americans who said they will keep wearing masks in public after they’ve been vaccinated until the pandemic ends, according to a new Axios/Ipsos poll.

  • 66%.The percentage of Americans who said they will keep social distancing after they’ve been vaccinated until the pandemic ends, according to a new Axios/Ipsos poll.

  • 25%. The percentage of respondents who said they had gotten vaccinated when they were polled by Axios/Ipsos.


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Have a nice day.

If you’re a fan of space and stars, this week is a good one to look up. Tomorrow, stargazers will be able to spot Mercury, Jupiter and Saturn in near-perfect alignment, along with a sliver of the moon framing the planets on the southeast horizon. Jupiter will be the brightest, and with a pair of powerful binoculars or a telescope, you should be able to spot its largest moons — and maybe even the rings of Saturn. (Good News Network)