As COVID cases rise, pandemic politics return to the national stage

Most people have moved on, but the coronavirus is still around and stirring passions.

Donald Trump stands at a wooden podium emblazoned with a plaque that reads: South Dakota Republican Party while surrounded by a few dozen people holding signs that read: Trump 2024.
Former President Donald Trump speaks at a rally in Rapid City, S.D., on Sept. 8. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

The recent spike in coronavirus cases has revived some of the ferocious debates that animated national — and local — politics throughout the first two and a half years of the pandemic.

Even though hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19 are happening at much lower rates than during the Delta and Omicron waves, the spike is significant enough for the coronavirus to be in the news again — which, inevitably, has meant a whole new round of ferocious debates about masks, vaccines and lockdowns.

Those debates suggest that bitter feelings remain across the political spectrum, even if the pandemic is technically “over.” On the left, many believe that restrictions like mask mandates were dropped too early. For the right, schools stayed closed for too long and other restrictions proved ineffective.

Although a few schools have temporarily closed for in-person instruction, and some institutions have asked people to wear masks again, there is little sense that elected or public health officials are going to bring any significant restrictions back.

That has hardly stopped politicians from brandishing some of their favorite pandemic-related arguments and attacks.

Read more on Yahoo News: New COVID variant 'Pirola' sparks case rise across U.S. and Canada, via the Independent

COVID is back at the White House

President Biden holds up a face mask while speaking in the White House.
President Biden holds up a face mask while speaking in the White House on Sept. 6. (Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images)

Earlier this month, the White House announced that first lady Jill Biden tested positive for COVID-19. President Biden, who had spent the weekend with her in Delaware, tested negative — and continued to do so.

Biden also flaunted the masking rules by which the White House said he would abide. At a midweek event at the White House, he made a point of carrying a mask without actually wearing it. “They keep telling me, because this has to be 10 days or something, I’ve got to keep wearing it. But don’t tell them I didn’t have it on when I walked in,” the president joked.

From the start, his administration projected competence and expertise when it came to the pandemic. But the president himself is acutely aware that many Americans are over the pandemic. He also knows that his conservative opponents want to paint him as a supporter of the most onerous public health measures: “Be prepared: Biden is setting the stage for another round of COVID-19 lockdowns,” a misleading Washington Examiner headline recently said.

Last week also saw the publication of The Last Politician: Inside Joe Biden's White House and the Struggle for America's Future by Atlantic writer Franklin Foer. Foer describes Biden as taking the side of cautious teachers’ unions on school reopenings, which many believe should have happened much sooner.

Read more on Yahoo News: Inside the Biden White House: 5 takeaways from Franklin Foer's new book, 'The Last Politician'

Trump, DeSantis relitigate 2020

Ron DeSantis and Donald Trump sit at a table before microphones in front of flags and sign reading: We're in this together, President Donald J. Trump
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis at a COVID-related event with then-President Donald Trump in Belleair, Fla., in July 2020. (Tom Brenner/Reuters)

Gov. Ron DeSantis first gained notice during his hands-off approach to the coronavirus. He was skeptical of lockdowns and urged schools to reopen in the fall of 2020, at a time when many Democratic governors refused to take the same step. Later, he took edgier positions on masks and vaccines, which further endeared him to conservatives. His handling of the pandemic propelled him to a landslide in last year’s midterm election.

Trump’s handling of the pandemic was less hands-off than erratic, best symbolized by his infamous advice to inject bleach (which people should not do for any reason). He first urged caution, then embraced controversial scientists who favored a let-it-rip approach. Some believe that his response to the pandemic cost him the 2020 election.

DeSantis has seized on the recent mini-wave to revive the pandemic-era stances that made him prominent in the first place. A recent fundraising message declared that “WE WILL NOT COMPLY” with new coronavirus restrictions, which have only been implemented in a few jurisdictions across the country. The faltering DeSantis campaign is also selling “This is a mask-free house” lawn signs.

The rollout of a new coronavirus booster this week has also given DeSantis the opportunity to remind voters of his opposition to vaccines.

Trump, for his part, has attacked DeSantis by misrepresenting his positions. “Lockdown Ron should take a look in the mirror and ask himself why he’s trying to gaslight voters,” a Trump campaign spokesman told the New York Times.

Read more on Yahoo News: Why Ron DeSantis can't stop talking about COVID

Will voters be swayed?

Ron DeSantis stands at a podium that reads: Seniors first, text FLCovid19 to 888777.
DeSantis at a coronavirus vaccination site in Bradenton, Fla., in February 2021. (Chris O'Meara/AP)

Probably not.

The current wave will likely subside in the next several weeks.

The future will inevitably bring new waves, but if Omicron subvariants continue their current evolutionary path, they are for the most part unlikely to cause serious illness or death.

With each wave, there could be renewed political disagreements, especially as the presidential election nears. But it is not clear that those disagreements can sustain public attention for long: According to a recent poll conducted by Yahoo News and YouGov, only 7% of Americans are “very worried” about COVID-19.

Read more on Yahoo Finance: U.S. approval of fall boosters comes amid uptick in COVID-19 cases