WASHINGTON (AP) – President Joe Biden’s administration has been working for months to prepare people to reconsider their personal risk calculations as the nation adjusts to the idea of living with an endemic COVID-19.
But that measured approach abruptly disappeared when a federal judge on Monday overturned the federal requirement for masking when using mass transit. The ruling added urgency to the messaging challenge as the government tries to overcome the virus ahead of the midterm elections.
After the government last month relaxed mask-wearing guidelines indoors for the vast majority of Americans — even in schools — masking on airplanes has been one of the last redoubts of the national COVID-19 restrictions. Now that the directive falls, the government is stepping up efforts to provide the best advice to millions of people making their own personal safety decisions amid the still-dangerous pandemic.
It’s both a public health imperative and an important shift in emphasis for Biden’s political future.
“There is an opportunity now, instead of saying this is a disappointing decision, they could say this is a good time to have a conversation about how we are moving forward on risk calculation in this pandemic,” said Dr. Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease physician and senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.
“With COVID-19, I think we’ve gotten to a point where we’re immune to previous infections, vaccines, home tests and treatments so we can start managing this the way we manage other infectious diseases,” he said .
Biden himself went all-in Tuesday when asked whether Americans should dress up on airplanes.
“It’s up to them,” Biden said during a visit to Portsmouth, New Hampshire. But his own White House still requires face coverings for those traveling with him on Air Force One, citing guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The shift to less formal regulation was actually anticipated in a 100-page plan released by the White House coronavirus response team in February. At the time, administration officials had hoped that children under the age of 5 would now be eligible for vaccination – a move that would have allayed the concerns of millions of parents and provided an umbrella of protection to almost everyone in the US who wanted it.
Monday’s court order lifting the mask mandate came at a crossroads in the nation’s response to the pandemic, just under a year after the day all American adults became eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine. The ruling prompted government agencies and the White House to scramble to comply, but that didn’t stop the momentary confusion among travelers as airlines and airports dropped their mask requirements — in some cases mid-flight.
The administration stressed that even without a mandate, Americans should follow CDC recommendations about wearing face coverings. Biden’s press secretary, Jen Psaki, said the same thing just an hour before his “up to you” comment.
“The CDC continues to advise and recommend masks on airplanes. We are following CDC recommendations, President, and we would encourage all Americans to do so,” she said.
On Tuesday, Justice Department spokesman Anthony Coley said officials believe the federal mask regulation is “a valid exercise of authority granted by Congress to the CDC to protect public health.” He said it was “an important authority that the ministry will continue to work to preserve”.
But he said the department will appeal the ruling only if the CDC determines the public health mask mandate is still necessary. As of Tuesday night, the agency had not made a decision, officials said.
Psaki indicated Tuesday that while the government was disappointed with the ruling, it did not square with Congress’ inability to reach a compromise on additional COVID funds to purchase booster shots and antiviral treatments.
“That’s our biggest concern,” she said.
Face covering requirements, which have been shown to reduce the risk of infection, have become increasingly political in the US over the past year, particularly as cases and serious outcomes have declined.
The ongoing mandate for public transport and air travel was a daily reminder for many people that the pandemic they desperately wanted to be behind was still affecting their lives, even when vaccinations and antiviral treatments had dramatically reduced their risk. For others who still fear the virus, each reversal of pandemic restrictions has sparked fresh unrest — and, in some cases, criticism of the Biden administration.
“There are still a lot of people in this country who still want to wear masks — either they have immunocompromised relatives, they have children under the age of five, whatever it is,” Psaki said.
Monday’s court ruling hastened a result that was likely to come in weeks anyway. Many administration officials believed last week’s 15-day extension of the mask regulation to May 3 would be the last. The health agency had asked for additional time to monitor whether a recent spike in infections would lead to increased hospitalizations or deaths. Not yet.
The court’s order surprised the administration and left it difficult to comprehend its implications — both for the end of the requirement and for future authorities at the CDC.
“CDC scientists had requested 15 days to make a more data-backed permanent decision,” tweeted Dr. Aashish Jha, the new White House COVID-19 coordinator, on Tuesday. “We should have given it to them.”
The rise in cases and a recent spate of positive cases in Biden’s orbit – including Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi – have been a powerful reminder that the virus is not going away.
Biden, 79, was never identified as a “close contact,” under CDC guidelines, the White House said, and officials stressed he was heavily protected against the virus with vaccination and two boosters.
Controlling the virus that has killed 986,000 Americans has been a priority for Biden since he took office. The US is now averaging about 35,000 confirmed cases per day, down from a peak of more than 806,000 during January’s Omicron surge, but up slightly from a low of about 26,000 a month ago. These numbers are certainly underestimated, as many people don’t report the results of home testing to health authorities.
AP writers Chris Megerian in Portsmouth, New Hampshire and Michael Balsamo in Washington contributed.