GOP governors slam COVID limits while setting policy agendas

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — (AP) — As the omicron variant rages and fills up hospital beds around the country, Republican governors are highlighting their opposition to restrictions that have marked the COVID-19 pandemic even as they seek to move past it and set their agendas for the year.

The state of the state addresses governors are delivering to kick off their states' legislative sessions are occurring as COVID-19 hospitalizations surge to their highest levels since the pandemic began in 2020 and soaring infections are disrupting seemingly all aspects of life, from schools to air travel.

Republican governors are using the speeches to rail against the Biden administration's response, and to tout their opposition to mandates and lockdowns they argue didn't work to stem the virus.

"These unprecedented policies have been as ineffective as they have been destructive," Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is eyeing a possible 2024 run for president, said as he took a dig at Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government's top infectious disease expert. "They are grounded more in blind adherence to Faucian declarations than they are in the constitutional traditions."

Another potential 2024 GOP presidential hopeful, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, vowed to push for legislation that she said would protect medical or religious exemptions from vaccine requirements. The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday blocked the Biden administration's rule requiring workers at large businesses to vaccinate or get tested, but kept in place a similar requirement for most health care workers.

“Unvaccinated Americans are still Americans," Noem said.

In Arizona, Republican Gov. Doug Ducey complained about "COVID-era posturing and politics of some school board bureaucrats."

“There’s been too much attention put on masks and not nearly enough placed on math," Ducey said.

The GOP broadsides against virus restrictions come as governors from both parties have shown little appetite for widespread public orders, school closures or business shutdowns. But Democratic governors are highlighting the omicron threat as they seek an infusion of state funds to address the spike in cases.

In California, Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom has asked the Legislature for $2.7 billion to expand testing and boost hospital staffing as the state copes with a surge of new patients. Things are so urgent, Newsom said, that he wants lawmakers to give him permission to spend $1.4 billion of that money immediately instead of waiting until the new budget year starts July 1.

“Where are we? Where are we going? And when is this thing behind us now? No one can answer the latter part of that,” Newsom said. “We’re all humbled by this pandemic.”

Another Democrat, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, has proposed a $10 billion plan to boost the state's health care workforce by 20% over the next five years, after the sector suffered high burnout rates during the pandemic.

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat who won reelection last year, announced he was reinstating a public health emergency he had declared because of the pandemic. Murphy said the order was mostly to continue a mask mandate in schools and daycares. It also preserves a test or vaccination requirement for state workers and health care employees.

“We are all in this together. And we must keep moving forward together,” Murphy said. “But try as it may to knock us back and further divide us, one thing is certain. Omicron has not knocked us down.”

Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly asked the majority-Republican Legislature in Kansas to keep in place through March orders she has issued that ease state licensing requirements for medical personnel and nursing home workers. She also asked for a freeze on on college tuition, arguing it would help students hurt by the pandemic.

“In every corner of our state, ordinary people continue to do extraordinary things,” Kelly said. “The Kansas spirit of neighbor helping neighbor has never been stronger.”

Even as they rail against vaccine requirements, some Republican governors are still urging holdouts in their state to get vaccinated.

"If you haven't been vaccinated, I encourage, I plead, I beg of you to speak with your doctor and do so," Indiana's Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb said. "I say this, even if you've disagreed with every position I've taken. I want us both to be around to continue those disagreements."

West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice canceled his planned appearance before lawmakers to deliver his state of the state speech after testing positive for COVID-19. But the Republican governor still delivered a written speech read by a clerk.

While highlighting his opposition to vaccine requirements, Justice hailed the state's incentive program that included prizes throughout 2021 to residents who got vaccinated. Justice earlier this month asked the federal government to allow West Virginia to begin offering a fourth dose of the vaccine to certain at-risk residents four months after their first booster shot.

“We will continue to be the light in the dark, until this pandemic is behind us once and for all,” Justice said.

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Associated Press writers Brendan Farrington in Tallahassee, Fla.; Adam Beam in Sacramento, Calif.; John Hanna in Topeka, Kansas; Michael Catalini in Newark, N.J.; John Raby in Charleston, W.Va., Stephen Groves in Pierre, S.D.; Bob Christie and Jonathan J. Cooper in Phoenix; Tom Davies in Indianapolis; and Marina Villeneuve in Albany, N.Y. contributed to this report.