Analysis: A newly unmasked US — just in time for Biden’s big speech

Everything changed in an instant: The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday changed how it gauges Covid-19 metrics. With the major tweak, most of the country’s population went from living in a place where masks were recommended to one where they weren’t.

As CNN reported on Friday, about 99% of the population was previously in an area where the CDC recommended indoor mask wearing. With the new guidance released that afternoon, the figure dropped to just 28%.

The changes from the CDC, alongside a slew of states lifting mask requirements in schools and elsewhere starting Tuesday, mean that when President Joe Biden addresses Congress Tuesday night, he could choose to say the State of the Union is mostly unmasked.

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Biden needs the public to reassess his performance on Covid-19. CNN’s Deidre McPhillips notes recent polling suggests most Americans don’t think the virus is under control, although less than a third of Americans said they were wearing masks at all times while outside the home.

The CDC still recommends that people at increased risk for Covid-19 should mask up. But most people in most areas can go without masks, according to the CDC’s new guidance based on “Covid-19 community level” metrics, which rely on the following three pieces of data:

  • New Covid-19 hospitalizations.
  • Hospital capacity.
  • New Covid-19 cases.

“We’re in a better place today than we were six months ago, six weeks ago, six days ago,” US Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra said in a statement to CNN on Friday. “Now it’s time to focus on severity, not just cases, of COVID. Because of all the hard work that’s been done and the many tools we’ve developed to tackle COVID, we can ease the guidance on mask use — not everyone in every place needs to wear a mask.”

Other Covid-19 metrics are falling but still very high. More than 1,600 people are dying in the US of Covid-19 every day, according to the CDC’s seven-day average of new deaths. The US is still creeping up toward 1 million total Covid-19-related deaths.

But progress is undeniable and the CDC’s new metric, along with the many schools going for optional masking, mean Biden will address the country in a very different place than it was just days ago.

Biden will address a joint session of Congress in a House chamber where masks will not be required for the first time since July.

Even in Washington, DC, most mask requirements were allowed to expire, although not for schools in the nation’s capital.

It’s an odd development that the many older members of Congress as well as diners, bar-goers and gym rats in Washington don’t have to wear masks, but young students, who have a much lower chance of an adverse Covid-19 case, are still required to wear masks in schools.

In nearby Virginia, a new law went into effect on Tuesday making masks optional for all students in the state.

The entire West Coast — California, Oregon and Washington state — announced plans to drop mask rules for students starting March 12.

New York City plans to drop its mask rule for students March 7.

Masks are still required, CNN’s Holly Yan notes, on public transportation, but the rules are currently set to expire March 18, with the possibility of a fourth extension of the mask requirement on planes, trains, buses, boats and in terminals.

Perhaps that’s something for Biden to address during his speech.

He’ll have a lot of material, from Covid-19 to Ukraine to inflation and the economy.

We have you covered on every topic heading into the speech:

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