Republicans Declare War on Mask Mandates

Mask mandates might be a relic of the past.

The federal government eliminated them at the close of the national health emergency declared around COVID-19, citing high levels of vaccinations that made the need to slow the spread of the virus even less prudent. Many businesses followed suit, with voluntary masking requirements in most stores dissipating as more and more people received the vaccine.

But as some schools and medical facilities have begun reinstating them amid a surge of a new strain of COVID-19, Republican lawmakers want them to stay a thing of the past, launching bills aimed at restricting the federal government’s ability to impose similar mandates in the future.

Citing arguments that masks didn’t work to slow the spread of the virus during COVID—which most studies contest—Ohio Republican Senator JD Vance announced plans September 5 to introduce the Freedom to Breathe Act, which would permanently prevent the federal government from reimposing federal mask mandates in the United States.

“We tried mask mandates once in this country. They failed to control the spread of respiratory viruses, violated basic bodily freedom, and set our fellow citizens against one another,” said Vance in a news release announcing the legislation. “This legislation will ensure that no federal bureaucracy, no commercial airline, and no public school can impose the misguided policies of the past. Democrats say they’re not going to bring back mask mandates—we’re going to hold them to their word.”

Then there’s Georgia Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, an influential member of the House Republican Conference who has pledged not to vote in favor of any federal budget that included funding for any COVID-19 vaccine or mask mandates.

“That is over,” she told constituents at an August 31 town hall in Floyd County, Georgia. “Even Joe Biden said it was over.”

And in Texas, a new ban on COVID-19 restrictions requiring individuals to wear face masks in public spaces went into effect on September 1 amid a rash of public and private entities across the U.S. reinstated the policy due to a rise in new infections fueled by two new variants of the virus.

“Thanks to Governor Abbott and the hard work of the Texas Legislature, Texas has closed the door on COVID restrictions,” Andrew Mahaleris, a spokesperson for Abbott, told Newsweek at the time.

While Texas, a deep-red state with a Republican governor, was already unlikely to revive a mask mandate, it’s unclear whether a federal mask mandate is on the table at all. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which oversees federal rulemaking around masking policies, told a Newsweek reporter last Thursday that it currently had no plan to revive COVID-era mask mandates.

There are also no plans to reimpose them in the federal budget, though some Republican lawmakers have remained hung up over COVID-19 vaccine mandates for servicemembers in the United States military.

It’s also unclear whether Vance’s bill will be successful. While the upper chamber of the U.S. Congress is narrowly divided, it still leans toward Democrats, while it is unclear whether the more moderate members of the Republican party would align with Vance on the effort.