Coronavirus Briefing: What Happened Today

A pandemic election.,


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ImageDaily reported coronavirus cases in the United States, seven-day average.
Daily reported coronavirus cases in the United States, seven-day average.Credit…The New York Times

American elections are typically fought over a semi-fixed set of central issues — pocketbook concerns, schools, whether voters feel like things are going well for them. But in yesterday’s contests, the pandemic played an outsized role in two strong Republican showings.

“This is really our first pandemic election of the Biden era,” said my colleague Lisa Lerer, who covers politics for The Times. “The pandemic really infused a lot of the politics, and we got some national signs of how voters think the Democrats have handled it.”

They did not give out high marks.

In New Jersey, the race provided one of the first statewide tests of how voters felt about strict virus-related mandates. Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, has enacted mask-wearing rules in schools and refused to rule out a vaccine mandate for students. He was expected to coast to victory but faced a surprisingly close race that is still too close to call.

In Virginia, the central battleground of the campaign was schools, driven by parental frustration about education during the pandemic. The Democratic nominee for governor, Terry McAuliffe, was beaten with relative ease by Glenn Youngkin, a Republican private equity executive and political newcomer. Youngkin campaigned heavily on education — and in opposition to what he called “critical race theory” — and criticized the state’s handling of schooling during the pandemic, which may have played a part in his win.

“There’s just so much focus on the schools, and it’s visceral,” a former chairman of the Republican Party of Virginia told The Times. “This is like, ‘You’re destroying our children’s education.’ And, look, angry people vote.”

A telling figure, Lisa said, can be found in an NBC News poll from this past weekend where Americans were asked: Do you think the country is on the right track or the wrong track? Just over 71 percent said the wrong track.

“It’s a terrible number for Democrats,” Lisa said. It captures some of the general malaise that voters feel as they emerge from the pandemic and feel as though things are not back to the way they were before, she added.

As for what yesterday’s contests mean going forward, Lisa said that the pandemic has shown that political positions can be outpaced by public health conditions. But it has exacerbated some central issues: inequality, learning loss, inflation, crime. “I think the question is going to be how Democrats deal with this sort of shadow pandemic,” she said.

My colleague Natasha Frost, who writes the Europe edition of the Morning Briefing, moved in October 2020 from New York to New Zealand, where she grew up. She recently sent this note about life under the country’s strict virus restrictions.

For the last 78 days, people in Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city, have lived in a state of lockdown that is a distant memory to many Americans. We have not gone into most stores, eaten at restaurants, or hosted friends at home. Most children have not been at school; most workers have not been in their offices.

That’s despite a low case rate of about 130 per day — Phoenix, which is roughly the same size, has nearly 2,000 a day — and 80 percent of the eligible population vaccinated.

Here’s the difference: In many countries, hundreds of daily deaths have become the new normal. New Zealand, which has reported fewer than 30 deaths since the pandemic began, refuses to countenance that. Auckland will remain in lockdown until at least 90 percent of its eligible population across all three districts is fully inoculated, which may take another month.

New Zealand has managed the virus by extinguishing flares with sharp, targeted lockdowns. But the outbreak of the Delta variant that began in August has forced a new strategy.

The new aim is keeping cases as low as possible to avoid overwhelming New Zealand’s health system. The restrictions, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said last month, have “given us the gift of time, time to get vaccinated.” The government is now banking on a 90 percent vaccination rate in every region of the country to prevent outbreaks that are humdrum elsewhere.

For New Zealanders who are accustomed to a zero-Covid reality, highs of 150 cases or more a day are hard to stomach. Some have called for even stricter restrictions. Others have said the government would be sacrificing the Maori population, whose vaccination rate lags the rest of the country, by relaxing restrictions.

When I arrived in New Zealand from New York, I wondered if the country had managed to avoid a messy transition to a post-pandemic normal. But this outbreak has changed the equation. New Zealand must now find a way to live alongside Covid — once the lockdown comes to an end.

In the early days of working from home, I yearned for returning to the office and a structured schedule. But, now, as I return to the office one day a week, I have come to relish the slower pace of work-from-home mornings. To ease into the workday when I go to the office, I’ve started to take my shower in the dark with only the night light from our bathroom. It’s such a peaceful beginning to what used to be a crazy morning schedule in prepandemic times. I may just keep this up when I return more frequently to working from the office.

— Rebecca, Greensboro, N.C.

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