The COVID National Emergency Is Officially Over
The Biden White House on Monday published the shortest press statement I’ve ever seen: “On Monday, April 10, 2023, the President signed into law: H.J. Res. 7, which terminates the national emergency related to the COVID-19 pandemic.”
No victory lap, no elaboration, no fanfare. It’s almost like the White House doesn’t want to talk about it, like Biden’s signature on H.J. Res. 7 put them in a bad mood.
What makes this grumpiness all the more strange is that, two-and-a-half years ago, when Biden was running for president, he promised, “I will end this.” Does the White House not want to take credit for accomplishing a signature campaign promise? That doesn’t sound like the Biden administration.
The truth is, Biden’s signature on H.J. Res. 7 was an admission of defeat. As recently as January 30, President Biden publicly opposed the measure, which was led by Republicans in the U.S. House, (as well as H.R. 382, which would end the simultaneous COVID Public Health Emergency) in a Statement of Administration Policy (SAP). The White House claimed that “an abrupt end to the emergency declarations would create wide-ranging chaos and uncertainty throughout the health care system.”
So, the Biden administration offered an alternative to the Republican-led Congressional resolution. “At present, the Administration’s plan is to extend the emergency declarations to May 11, and then end both emergencies on that date,” said the SAP.
What reason did the Biden administration see, in January, to officially end the COVID-19 emergencies on May 11? They said they had made commitments to “give at least 60 days’ notice” when terminating the public health emergency. That was 70 days before Biden signed H.J. Res. 7., which he did 31 days — one whole month — before the date they chose. If there’s another reason, they didn’t say what it was, thus giving the impression that they arbitrarily pulled this date out of thin air.
Two possible reasons suggest themselves for why the Biden administration opposed the congressional resolution and chose an arbitrary date instead: public image or pump fake. The Biden administration may have cared to choose the date to present themselves as leading on the issue instead of bowing to Congress’s will. According to this theory, the Biden administration neglected to end the emergencies for more than two years until House Republicans forced their hand.
On the other hand, they may have sought to frame the congressional resolution as unnecessary to derail support for the resolution — and then re-extend the emergency declaration once it was defeated. This more cynical explanation alleges the Biden administration attempted to achieve a policy objective while using deception to evade another branch of government’s attempt to hold it accountable.
Of course, the general principle, “never attribute to malice what can be explained through incompetence,” suggests we should prefer the first explanation. In fact, there would be no reason to mention this explanation had the Biden administration not already tried the same tactic once before. In June 2021, the Supreme Court left in place a pandemic-related eviction moratorium issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in part because it was scheduled to expire soon. The CDC then reimposed the moratorium, leading the Supreme Court to severely rebuke the administration in August 2021.
That was the administration’s position in late January. Days later on February 1, all but 11 House Democrats voted against H.J. Res. 7, which passed by a modest 229-197. However, by the time the Senate voted overwhelmingly (68-23) to pass the measure on March 29, the White House had softened its position. “The President strongly opposes HJ Res 7,” a White House official told The Hill. “If this bill comes to his desk, however, he will sign it.” Thus, President Biden’s quiet signing of H.J. Res. 7 was an admission of defeat.
It didn’t have to come to this. President Biden had declared in September on national television, “The pandemic is over.” As early as July 4, 2021, Biden had stated, “While the virus hasn’t been vanquished, we know this: It no longer controls our lives. It no longer paralyzes our nation.” Had President Biden ended the emergency declarations at any prior moment, he could have claimed a measure of credit. Yet, as recently as February 10, 2023 — after H.J. Res. 7 had passed the U.S. House — the White House was still extending the national emergency declaration.
To add insult to injury, the emergency declarations weren’t even accomplishing much. The SAP admitted:
“To be clear, continuation of these emergency declarations until May 11 does not impose any restriction at all on individual conduct with regard to COVID-19. They do not impose mask mandates or vaccine mandates. They do not restrict school or business operations. They do not require the use of any medicines or tests in response to cases of COVID-19.”
That’s largely because courts had already struck down most of those draconian measures, particularly at the federal level — such as mandates that all airplane passengers wear masks or that all large- and medium-sized employers fire unvaccinated staff. Nothing remained of the administration’s most restrictive COVID policies except the underlying emergency declaration granting them extraordinary power.
By this point, the American people have largely moved on from COVID. Most Americans had resumed their normal participation in church, work, school, and even family gatherings since at least the spring of 2022, if not by the summer of 2021. In February 2023, Gallup recorded that only 25% of Americans were very or somewhat worried about catching COVID, only 15% remained socially isolated, while a majority (51%) made no attempt to isolate, only 23% avoided large crowds, and only 31% wore masks in public.
Even the far-left New York Times had to abandon its daily tracking “after more than three years of daily reporting” last month due to “declining availability of virus data from state and local officials” who had to attend to more pressing matters. When it closed the curtain on March 23, the Times recorded six daily cases per 100,000 people, and less than one daily death per 100,000 people.
Why, then, did the Biden administration keep resuscitating a zombified COVID emergency declaration far beyond its sell-by date? The one-word answer is: power. Federal law permits the executive branch to do certain things during an emergency that it wouldn’t be able to do under normal circumstances. This is why the administration has floated the idea of declaring a public health emergency on abortion, so that the Department of Health and Human Services can take a more active role in promoting and subsidizing abortion pills and abortion-related travel. Ending the emergency declarations meant surrendering certain powers, which the administration was reluctant to do.
The SAP suggests the Biden administration is using the emergency declaration to expand Medicaid coverage, flex the rules for hospitals and nursing homes, promote telehealth, and implement the Title 42 policy, which is currently the only mitigating factor in the ongoing disaster at the southern border.
Of course, the intended restraint on these emergency powers is that they are designed for emergency use only. It’s becoming increasingly ridiculous to call COVID a national emergency when many — perhaps most — Americans didn’t give it a thought in the past week. Now that the national emergency has ended, the end of the public health emergency should logically follow.
For three years, Americans have suffered from COVID, yes. But they have also suffered the indignities of cherished freedoms trampled on; basic human observances like funerals, weddings, and worship services suppressed; and government officials insulting their intelligence with barefaced lies. Finally, Congress has finally forced the administration to recognize that the occasion they used to justify an extensive power grab is no longer relevant. It’s a fitting conclusion to the obtuse era of COVID politics.
Far too late, but at long last, we can say: The End.
Joshua Arnold is a staff writer at The Washington Stand.