When hundreds of thousands of Virginians had lost their jobs in the first summer of the pandemic, Glenn Youngkin, an executive of a private equity firm, had quit his.
The wealthy businessman from Northern Virginia was following political ambitions, soon taking jabs at Democratic leaders for how he believed they bungled the COVID-19 response. As health workers and elderly residents received the initial vaccines, he criticized the administration for not distributing doses faster.
“All of a sudden, one of the most important linchpins to unlocking Virginia’s future was stuck on the sidelines because we did a bad job,” he said during a February interview with Royal Examiner in Warren County. “In my world, you get fired for that. All of a sudden, everybody is now starting to recognize that if we can just get the vaccine out, it will increase everyone’s confidence to do all the things we want them to do.”
Months later, the candidate once proclaiming the vaccine as the key to fixing the economy was facing former Gov. Terry McAuliffe on the debate stage, rebuking vaccine and mask mandates and all but pledging to roll them back. Hospital systems fought the disease with policies, procedures and testing, he said — not making their employees get shots. Requiring immunization for anyone, even doctors and nurses, would only make people’s lives difficult, he said.
Now in the final months under Gov. Ralph Northam, residents wait to see how Youngkin will alter Virginia’s public health campaign against the worst pandemic in U.S. history. Though the late-summer surge in infections peaked and steadily declined during the homestretch of the governor’s race, COVID-19 may resurface as an issue when the political neophyte takes office Jan. 15. Infectious disease forecasters have warned of a potential sequel to last winter’s wave, perhaps rivaling its record caseload early next year.
Almost 700,000 Virginians have had confirmed cases of the disease, with about 1,300 new infections being reported each day lately. Over 14,200 residents, 11 of whom were children, have died.
Based on previous remarks, Youngkin is likely to overturn mandates requiring vaccines for state workers and masks in schools. Though vaccinated, the Republican said other people should be free to decide whether to get inoculated.
Youngkin also said in the final debate that while he would keep vaccine requirements for measles, mumps and rubella for K-12 students, he would not support adding the coronavirus to that list, even after the shots get federal licensure.
In August, when the more aggressive delta variant caused cases to soar, particularly among children, he told a Christian Broadcasting Network reporter he would end school masking.
“In the current set of data we see today, no mask mandate,” he said.
Governors tend to have broad authority during emergencies. With that power, Northam has required state workers since September to show proof they are vaccinated or submit to weekly COVID-19 tests. State Health Commissioner Norm Oliver also signed a public health order in August forcing mask-wearing for students and teachers, drawing ire from school systems that opposed it.
The question is how Youngkin will handle localities and school boards that want to set or maintain their own requirements, said Bob Holsworth, founding director of the Center for Public Policy and the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University.
“That’s where the controversy has been in many other states, particularly in Florida, in Texas, where it wasn’t just removing a state mandate, it was governors saying that the locals couldn’t make decisions based on their judgment,” Holsworth said. Govs. Ron DeSantis and Greg Abbott, “are taking money away from school systems, taking them to court, doing everything possible to use state power to restrict local options.”
It’s unclear where Youngkin will land on the issue. He and his team declined through a spokesman to comment for this story, citing a busy schedule.
The governor-elect provided a few breadcrumbs on the campaign trail for how he may use his executive power to put his thumb on the scale. On the issue of virtual learning, for example, he told conservative radio host Mark Anthony in June “We’re not going to fund schools that are closed.”
He also demonstrated how his views align with sitting Republican governors’ choices. Youngkin praised DeSantis for quickly lifting COVID-19 restrictions, saying Northam had “miscalculated” how long to continue the shutdown.
“States that opened up faster than Virginia, like Florida, have had quite comparable health care statistics,” he said during a James Madison University town hall meeting in March. “There really has not been a demonstrated gain, from a health standpoint, by keeping Virginia closed like we have, and keeping our schools closed like we have.”
Public opinion polls show Virginians have supported Northam’s handling of the pandemic, despite his overall approval dipping. In late September, for example, The Roanoke College Poll found 47% of voters thought the state’s response to slow the spread of the virus was appropriate. While the survey indicated 69% of participants thought the federal government’s response had been appropriate or had not gone far enough, about 26% said the federal response went too far.
Most Republican governors have vowed to challenge President Joe Biden’s plans to order vaccines for federal workers and companies with 100 or more employees. In the final gubernatorial debate, Youngkin avoided outright promising to fight the regulations but said he didn’t believe the president had the authority to make them.
More than two-dozen states have filed legal challenges in at least six federal appeals courts. All the states have a Republican governor or attorney general. Judges on the New Orleans-based federal court have paused the rules from taking effect in January, saying it raises constitutional concerns.
Raymond Scheppach, professor of public policy at the University of Virginia, said it’s a close call whether Youngkin and the state’s soon-to-be attorney general, Jason Miyares, will join the legal battle.
When it comes to the state’s approach to the pandemic, Virginia has been less aggressive than some other Democratic states.
“It’s not New York,” Scheppach said. “So I would suspect he’s going to be kind of a moderate Republican. You’re going to see a shift, but I don’t think it’s going to be a huge shift.”
The GOP litigation could have an outsize impact on Virginia, a state with many companies that contract with the federal government.