The “maybe” in the headline doesn’t refer to New Jersey. They’re definitely dropping their mandate.

The “maybe” refers to the possibility I mentioned yesterday of Democrats across the country finally throwing in the towel on masking kids. The party is badly exposed politically. And if they didn’t grasp that after Glenn Youngkin’s win in Virginia, the uproar over Stacey Abrams’s absurdly tone-deaf photo op at a Georgia school should have driven it home.

But maybe it didn’t. Elissa Slotkin is one of the most vulnerable House Democrats in the country, representing a district that tilts red. She posted this pic less than 24 hours ago:

“Between this and Abrams, i’m beginning to wonder what kind of staff work is being done for Dems across the country,” lefty reporter Sam Stein tweeted. “Doesn’t seem like that hard a task for a staffer to say, ‘you may want to keep that mask on/mask up before your photo/selfie.’”

Phil Murphy fared better than Terry McAuliffe in November, narrowly surviving an electoral near-death experience when he held on to win reelection in a Biden +16 state by three points. Unlike most of his party, in other words, he’s already experienced firsthand the backlash among swing voters to endless COVID restrictions in schools. So now here he is, making a splash by announcing that New Jersey’s mask mandate for students is going away.

Sort of. Eventually.

Gov. Philip D. Murphy of New Jersey, a Democrat who has imposed some of the nation’s most stringent pandemic-related mandates, will no longer require students and school employees to wear masks, signaling a deliberate shift toward treating the coronavirus as a part of daily life…

Mr. Murphy’s move follows a decision last month by the Democratic governor of Pennsylvania, Tom Wolf, to rescind his state’s school mask mandate. The Democratic governors of New York and Connecticut also said last week that they were re-evaluating school mask mandates that are soon set to expire…

Last week, after meeting with President Biden at the White House during an annual governors conference, Mr. Murphy suggested it was time to reconsider how to manage the virus. “The overwhelming sentiment on both sides of the aisle,” he said on Wednesday, “is we want to get to a place where we can live with this thing in as normal a fashion as possible.”

Why do I say “eventually”? Because the mandate won’t officially be lifted for another month, which Murphy justifies as weather-related. He wants to replace mandatory masking with better ventilation, i.e. opening the windows. March temperatures in New Jersey will make that comfortable-ish for students, February temperatures won’t. Four more weeks of masking for kids there, then — and four more weeks for Murphy to change his mind if cases start to tick up again.

Why do I say “sort of”? Because although Murphy is lifting the state mask mandate, he’s not issuing a DeSantis-style ban on local governments from implementing their own mandates. If you live in a Democratic-run community, as most people in New Jersey do, odds are good that the “forever pandemic” mentality in schools requiring perpetual masking will persist. It’ll just be the school board that’s to blame instead of Murphy.

Or rather, it’ll be the “safety first” approach of liberal parents pressuring the local school district to reinstate masking requirements that’ll be responsible. Jill Filipovic is a progressive writer who’s pro-mask but looking for an off-ramp from having to mask forever. She’s learned the hard way what happens when you share that view with a liberal crowd:

One would hope scientists, however left-leaning, would be more sanguine about the prospect of unmasking kids (and everyone else) as Omicron abates than the average liberal but that’s probably too much to hope for. In an interview this morning, Scott Gottlieb explicitly blamed the “public health community” for practicing bad science in defense of indefinite COVID restrictions:

Not only will many Jersey school districts continue to impose mask mandates on kids after Murphy lifts the mandate, in other words, they’ll have experts egging them on to do so. If Murphy’s serious about getting masks off of kids, his only option is to follow DeSantis’s lead and bar local governments from issuing their own mandates. But that’s unlikely in a state that trends heavily blue. And governors micromanaging local governments with mandates and bans is bad practice even when it’s in service to a good cause.

I’m keen to see how Murphy’s decision plays in Virginia, though, where Youngkin and the forever-maskers are battling in court over his order granting parents the right to opt out of the state’s mask mandate. The more Democratic governors nationwide drop their own states’ mandates, the less reasonable the anti-Youngkin Democratic faction in Virginia will seem. In fact, because Virginia’s mandate derives from a statute that orders schools to follow CDC guidance, the CDC could blow up the Virginia debate by issuing new recommendations that make masking optional for students. I bet Joe Biden would be thrilled if they did, as Democrats nationally are eager to “pivot to normalcy” before the midterms. But Biden himself probably won’t pound the table about dropping school mask mandates for fear of angering his own “safety first” voters.

It’s often noted how much the modern GOP establishment is hostage to the worst impulses of its base but this is a case of Democrats experiencing the same problem. It’s not Biden who wants kids in masks forever. It’s not Phil Murphy. It’s not Jill Filipovic. It’s the rank-and-file Democrat who’s somehow internalized that COVID is a serious threat to their five-year-old despite reams of data to the contrary. And so Dems can only go so far in ditching mandates — certainly no further than eliminating them at the state level but leaving local governments free to impose their own.

Republicans need to make them pay. They’re already on the case.

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