The U.S. is about to hit 1 million coronavirus deaths, but in the continuing push to “return to normal” as the Omicron surge recedes, multiple states have just announced that they are lifting mask mandates, with no regard for how this will impact workers’ lives. Lifting the mask mandates is one prong of the strenuous effort by the capitalist class and the government to “bring things back to normal,” despite many restrictions having already been lifted for quite some time. The state and the bosses are coming down hard against safer working conditions, which is further evinced by the other “reopening” measures, such as keeping schools open and limiting remote options during the Omicron surge.
New York’s indoor mask mandate ended February 10. Under this requirement businesses had to ask customers for proof of full vaccination or require mask-wearing at all times. Masks in New York are still required on public transportation, in schools, in childcare or health care settings, and at group residential facilities, but the school mask mandate is in effect only until February 21 and has not yet been renewed. Other states that are lifting indoor mask mandates are Rhode Island, California, and Delaware. Some states, such as Delaware, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Oregon, Connecticut, and Illinois, are lifting mask mandates in schools specifically.
The government has consistently instituted insufficient Covid-19 policies, as illustrated by the U.S. death toll from the disease: 900,000. This and the wavering guidelines, combined with pandemic fatigue, have helped exhaust and confuse many workers. According to a national poll, 60 percent of U.S. adults say they’ve felt confused as a result of changes to public health officials’ recommendations on how to slow the spread of the coronavirus, up seven percentage points since last summer.
Of course people feel this way. They have just been told that the pandemic is essentially over and that they should stop wearing masks. Yet only a month and a half ago, scientists and doctors were telling the public that cloth masks were useless and that people should be wearing N95 masks everywhere to protect themselves from Omicron. During the height of the Omicron surge, the CDC shortened isolation lengths from 10 days to five, didn’t provide guidance around “testing out” of isolation with a confirmed negative test result, and recommended that asymptomatic Covid-positive healthcare workers keep coming in to work.
The CDC has not yet supported lifting mask mandates, and Dr. Walensky, director of the CDC, has claimed that hospitalizations and death rates are still too high to lift indoor mask mandates everywhere. But it will only be a matter of time until they change their tune to suit the capitalist reopening agenda.
The Biden administration provided four at-home rapid tests, once, and it has started to distribute some N95 masks, but that’s pretty much the extent of the central federal response. As with the handling of vaccine distribution, individual states can choose whether to institute public health measures like mask mandates or ventilation standards. The idea that we are essentially in “post-pandemic” times — reflected in the lifting of mask mandates, the ending of eviction moratoriums and public assistance programs, and turning the conversation into one about individuals’ choices — will hurt the working class and oppressed the most, especially those living with disabilities. Without consistently applying safety measures that are based on existing data and scientific recommendations, workers who have already been disproportionately affected by Covid-19 will continue to be put at disproportionate risk. For those who are disabled, and especially those who are suffering from long Covid-19, these rollbacks can mean death.As we’ve stated here, only workers and community members together can collectively decide how and when to roll back specific pandemic mitigation measures. Students are tired of online learning — rightfully so. Parents must go to work and often don’t have anyone to leave their kids with. Many workers are going to be the ones most exposed to Covid-19, and they are worried that, if left to the devices of politicians eager to drop protective measures to increase their chances of reelection, their workplaces may as well become infection hubs. This situation is the direct result of how Trump, Biden, governors, and mayors have dealt with the pandemic. Chicago teachers showed us the way — bringing forward the concerns of students and parents as well as other education workers in their fight for remote learning after the winter break. Now, as cases decline, a new variant of Omicron has started to emerge. In the coming days, how to safely reopen should be decided by those most directly impacted: the workers themselves.