Biden administration officials greeted the news with euphoria in Washington. In the White House, the President took off his mask during a meeting with Sen. Shelley Moore Capito and other senators, the West Virginia Republican said. The President’s aides, who had been wearing masks as late as Thursday morning, put them away. Senators on Capitol Hill uncovered their faces. “Free at last,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said.
The CDC’s decision to change the guidance for fully vaccinated people — which was a surprise even to White House officials informed late Wednesday — marks a huge political success for Biden early in his term and a key turning point on the road to eradicating the pandemic, which is perhaps the most important goal of his presidency. Yet in the coming days, the onus will be on officials — none more so than the President himself — to manage and demonstrate the transition between the CDC’s pronouncement and its impact on the lives of millions of Americans.
“I think it’s a great milestone, a great day,” Biden said in the White House Rose Garden, making a point to smile and tell others to do so after months of concealing their faces to keep one another safe. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told CNN’s Jake Tapper that the announcement did not mean that the pandemic was over in the US but said that the nation had just taken one step closer to normal life.
“Being able to go around without a mask, indoors as well as outdoors, is really a big step in that direction,” Fauci said. “I wouldn’t want to declare victory prematurely, but I’m saying this is clearly a step in the direction that we want to go.”
Still, the CDC’s decision immediately raised a flurry of questions and consequences, including a debate over whether an agency often criticized for being too cautious had suddenly gone too far.
There were already key points of confusion and conflicting policies that could raise doubt in the minds of some Americans about the science of unmasking at this point when about 46% percent of Americans who are 18 and older are fully vaccinated, according to data published by the CDC.
The equivocation was evident Thursday in the dissonant policies even within different government agencies and entities in Washington. The White House told vaccinated staffers that they could take off their masks at work. But when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was asked whether she planned to change the rules and allow members to unmask on the floor of the House of Representatives, the California Democrat replied: “No,” then asked rhetorically: “Are they all vaccinated?”
During school pickup Thursday throughout the country, many parents still wore their masks after the announcement as unvaccinated children streamed from the doors — raising questions about what the new policies will mean at a time when vaccines are not approved for younger children. Parents are also left struggling to explain why there are now different rules for adults and kids without creating more worries among young children.
By Thursday evening, many Americans were out on the town or at bars raising their glasses to celebrate the moment — even though bars have often been cited by scientists as one of the breeding grounds for Covid-19 transmission. Yet the federal transportation mask mandate will stay in place through September 13, according to the Transportation Security Administration Thursday, even though the science has generally shown that it has been safer to fly on planes than to fraternize at bars.
When asked why that masking requirement will still exist for vaccinated travelers, Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, told CNN’s Erin Burnett Thursday night that it makes sense for people who must sit close together in tight quarters to wear their masks.
“In circumstances where people are packed close together and you don’t know the status of immunization of everybody, it is still the better part of being cautious to wear masks on those planes and trains and buses,” Collins said. “Once we get further along with an even higher degree of immunization, and the viral infections — which are still 30,000 a day — really continue to drop down, we’ll be able to relax those as well.”
The surprise new guidance will have massive implications across the scope of national life, from restaurants, to transport, schools and offices.
At the root of the trepidation and consternation is the fact that the CDC’s new policy relies almost entirely on trust. It depends on unvaccinated people, who could harbor the new variants circulating within the US population, continuing to wear masks to protect themselves and to protect others who may not be able to get the vaccine, either for medical reasons or because they’re too young.
When asked how store or restaurant owners will know whether their customers are safe without masks, Fauci acknowledged that it will be a difficult challenge in the months ahead.
“They will not be able to know. I mean, you’re going to be depending on people being honest enough to say whether they were vaccinated or not, and responsible enough to be wearing… a mask, not only for their own protection, but also for the protection of others,” Fauci told Tapper.
Fauci noted that even though the federal government will not be mandating vaccine passports, there will be institutions, colleges and businesses that choose to make that proof a requirement.
While Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the director of the CDC, cited three new studies showing vaccines work as the foundation for the new guidance, the agency’s move struck some doctors and public health officials as abrupt.
“I do think that we need to send a very clear message that vaccination is your ticket back to pre-pandemic life, but frankly I was shocked by this announcement, I think they went from one extreme to another,” said Dr. Leana Wen, the former Baltimore health commissioner and a CNN medical analyst.
“If you’re going to the grocery store — maybe you’re fully vaccinated, you take off your mask at the grocery store — but who’s going to be checking to see if others are also vaccinated,” Wen said on CNN’s “Newsroom.”
“What does that mean if I’m bringing my son, my 4-year-old who is not fully vaccinated. Now he’s going to be in a grocery store potentially exposed to people who are not vaccinated who could be of danger to him. So I guess I’m kind of befuddled as to where this guidance came from. I think there’s a lot of steps that we’re missing.”
An incentive for the unvaccinated
In the short term, the fact that the new guidelines apply to vaccinated people only could give the administration an opening to convince people who are reluctant to get the shot to go ahead.
But the new CDC policy also raises the possibility that those Americans who have long chafed at mask wearing and have no intention of getting the vaccine — often conservatives — will take off their masks as well. And that could lead to further circulation of the virus.
The decision was so sudden that everyone from employers to restaurant owners to local government officials was scrambling to understand how to react. How quickly, for example, should they alter mask requirements and occupancy limits, and how to shape policies for proving one’s vaccination status?
One looming question, for instance, is whether it is now permissible for companies to welcome staff back to their offices — if they are fully vaccinated — without masks and social distancing. And if that is the case, will restaurants and hotels follow suit? And if businesses ask people to prove that they are vaccinated with vaccine passports or other documentation, how will the Biden administration try to prevent that request from becoming the next front in the vaccine culture wars?
Another area in which Americans will look to the White House for guidance will be the psychological dimension of a decision that reverses months and months of government guidance and behavior that has now become ingrained.
The masking recommendation came to symbolize the muffling of normal life during the worst health crisis in 100 years. Now, people who have long complained that those who don’t wear masks are ignoring science are in the position of having to trust the science themselves in taking off their masks.
First lady Jill Biden reflected that shock and spoke for many when she arrived maskless for a visit to West Virginia Thursday.
“We feel naked,” she said.