The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Biden’s coronavirus mandate isn’t as ‘divisive’ as its critics claim

Lawmakers and health officials on Sept. 12 responded to President Biden’s sweeping new vaccine mandates to contain the coronavirus pandemic. (Video: The Washington Post)

The Republican Party is suddenly united in its approach to the coronavirus pandemic. And all it took was for President Biden to announce that the federal government would mandate vaccination or weekly testing for employees of large companies.

“NO VACCINE MANDATES,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) tweeted Sunday, echoing the chief GOP talking point of the day.

The other big talking point is that the move is needlessly divisive. Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) said it “increases the division in terms of vaccination.” Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) said Biden is “pitting the vaccinated against the unvaccinated." Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee (R) called Biden’s policy “cynical and divisive.”

The thing is, though, that this isn’t a vaccine mandate at all, strictly speaking. And it’s also a move that, in the absence of such pushback, wouldn’t seem to be all that divisive.

The fact that this isn’t really a vaccine mandate has gotten almost completely lost in the debate over and coverage of it. You could just as easily call it a testing mandate with a vaccination opt-out. To the extent that people actually oppose it, it would be because they don’t like the federal government mandating vaccination and also don’t like the federal government mandating weekly testing.

But when it comes to such testing mandates, polls have suggested that the vast majority of Americans support the concept.

Polling on this subject has focused almost exclusively on the popularity of vaccine mandates, with relatively little attention paid to how people feel about testing mandates. Even a CNN poll released Monday, the first big one after Biden’s announcement — surveyed vaccine mandates alone.

But in January, a poll done for the Covid Collaborative and Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health surveyed views of a specific type of testing: rapid antigen testing. Among a variety of questions on the topic, it asked whether people approved of employers requiring employees to take rapid antigen tests before entering workplaces.

Fully 79 percent of people approved of this idea. This included 66 percent — two thirds — of Republicans.

The same poll ran a similar question in June — this time of only employed adults. Asked about being required to either vaccinate or obtain a negative test result in order to enter their workplace, people approved of the idea 65 percent to 35 percent, a 30-point margin.

That findings echo other polling, albeit from last year, that suggested about three-fourths of people supported testing requirements for workplaces and for schools.

About the only other good data we have on specifically this type of proposal comes from a poll that surveyed California small businesses in August. It asked whether those businesses would support “a state law requiring businesses to mandate vaccinations and/or weekly testing for employees” — very similar to Biden’s policy. It found that just 25 percent of small businesses opposed such a law, while 59 percent supported it.

That’s not a poll of all Americans, of course. And the Covid Collaborate polls didn’t account for the idea that this would be mandated by the federal government.

But both these polls and other data suggest that testing mandates are far less “divisive” than vaccine mandates — which generally poll pretty well by themselves (with majority support, sometimes as high as 6 in 10 Americans). That’s both logical and extremely pertinent to the ongoing debate, given that the more-consensus option is one that’s available to anybody who objects to vaccination.

Regrettably, it’s for some reason not a big part of that debate. And, incidentally, a great way for this policy to actually become more divisive is to mischaracterize it as strictly a vaccine mandate.

This post has been updated with more polling.

Coronavirus: What you need to know

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot designed to target both the original virus and the omicron variant. Here’s some guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

Variants: Instead of a single new Greek letter variant, a group of immune-evading omicron spinoffs are popping up all over the world. Any dominant variant will probably challenge a key line of treatment for people with compromised immune systems — the drugs known as monoclonal antibodies.

Tripledemic: Hospitals are overwhelmed by a combination of respiratory illnesses, staffing shortages and nursing home closures. And experts believe the problem will deteriorate further in coming months. Here’s how to tell the difference between RSV, the flu and covid-19.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people.

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