In omicron outbreak, US governors lose appetite for mandates

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FILE - New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy delivers his victory speech in front of supporters at Convention Hall after winning the gubernatorial race against Jack Ciattarelli Wednesday, Nov. 3, 2021, in Asbury Park, N.J. In New Jersey, which recently was second in the U.S. in cases during the surge, Murphy, a Democrat, is asking the legislature to renew his emergency powers so he can continue a mask mandate in schools. But the business shutdowns and near universal mask mandates from earlier appear to be off the table. (AP Photo/Noah K. Murray, File)

COLUMBIA, S.C. – Governors took sweeping actions during earlier surges of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many closed schools and ordered businesses shut down. They issued mask mandates, vaccine requirements and even quarantines in some places for people who had traveled to out-of-state hot spots.

Not this time, even as the exponential spread of the super-contagious omicron variant shatters COVID-19 infection records. While governors are sending help to hospitals, they are displaying little appetite for widespread public orders or shutdowns.

Even Democratic governors who passed strict mandates early on are now relying more on persuasion than dictates. They largely are leaving it up to local officials to make the tough calls on decisions such as whether to limit capacity in restaurants and theaters or keep schools open.

South Carolina set a record for positive tests over the New Year’s weekend and COVID-19 hospitalizations are up 67% from the week before. But Gov. Henry McMaster, a Republican, urged everyone to carry on as if everything's fine. “If you get real sick, there will be room in the hospitals,” he promised this week.

“There’s no need to panic. Be calm. Be happy," McMaster said. "We just had a great Christmas season. Business is booming.”

McMaster has consistently urged people to get vaccinated and in the earliest days of the pandemic, he directed K-12 schools and colleges to move to distance learning. But students are back in classrooms across the state, and he continues to resist imposing any statewide business shutdowns.

California is grappling with an astonishing spike in infections, and the state health department extended an indoor mask mandate to Feb. 15, but the state's Democratic leaders included no mechanism to enforce it. “I think a lot of people will self-enforce and do the right thing,” Gov. Gavin Newsom told reporters last month.

The sentiment seems familiar to Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan. The Republican announced a 30-day state of emergency to fight the omicron variant surge, but it doesn't include the same statewide mask mandate ordered earlier in the pandemic.

“I’m not sure the people that are refusing to wear a mask are going to wear one anyway, and we don’t have the ability to enforce it," Hogan said. "So we’re just strongly encouraging people to wear the damn mask.”

New Jersey has had the second-largest U.S. caseload during this surge, after New York, and Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy asked the legislature to renew his emergency powers so he can continue a mask mandate in schools. But renewed business shutdowns and near universal mask mandates appear to be off the table, and instead of issuing new executive orders, he's urging people to follow public health recommendations.

“Here is what we need everyone to really take to heart — the need to mask up, to get boosted, and to just practice common sense,” Murphy said.

Even governors who pushed the hardest for restrictions during earlier outbreaks have settled on appealing for people to take personal responsibility. Oregon removed its mask requirement from outdoor crowds in November and hasn’t reinstated it. Schools and businesses remain open, and Democratic Gov. Kate Brown has urged booster shots as the best way to combat the virus.

“Our focus right now is on making sure our most vulnerable Oregonians have access to booster shots and ensuring we are ready to support our hospital systems,” the governor’s spokesman, Charles Boyle, said in an email.

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican, was one of the first to close schools in March 2020 as the virus began spreading rapidly through the U.S. But his desire to take aggressive measures has waned, and since the summer he has focused on voluntary mask wearing and vaccinations.

“We don’t have the practical ability to really put on a statewide mask order at this point,” DeWine said in late December. “I don’t think it’s appropriate at this point. We have the vaccine. We have the tools.”

Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte, while listing his accomplishments during his first year in office Tuesday, said that through previous COVID-19 surges there was little differences in case counts between states run by Republicans that tended to take fewer precautions and those run by Democrats, which generally took stronger actions.

“Heavy-handed, one-size-fits-all mandates don’t work," Gianforte said.

In North Carolina, Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper is still leaving it to local governments to decide whether masks should be required in stores or government buildings rather than ordering them statewide, and encouraging but not requiring local school boards to retain mask mandates for students and staff.

Cooper has taken this tack even though the Republican-controlled legislature has lacked veto-proof majorities necessary to overturn his previous statewide COVID-19 mandates.

“We’re going to have to learn how to live with it, and continue to keep our kids in school and our businesses open and all of our government operations running effectively and efficiently,” Cooper said.

Pandemic fatigue among the public has led Utah Gov. Spencer Cox to suggest COVID-19 and its variants could be treated more like the flu or any other contagious disease. The focus, he said, should be on reducing the effects of the illness through vaccines and medicines, not government mandates. On Thursday, he encouraged people to wear masks as cases hit record levels and the state was running out of monoclonal antibody treatments, but stopped short of calling for new rules.

“We have lots of illnesses that spread very quickly,” he said last month. “But if they’re not filling up hospitals and killing people, you know, we go about our business. If they are filling up hospitals and killing people, then obviously it becomes much more concerning.”


Associated Press writers Mike Catalini in Trenton, New Jersey; Amy Hanson in Helena, Montana; Gary D. Robertson in Raleigh, North Carolina; Andrew Selsky in Salem, Oregon; Andrew Welsh-Huggins in Columbus, Ohio; Lindsay Whitehurst in Salt Lake City; and Brian Witte in Annapolis, Maryland, contributed to this report.