Analysis: Ruling striking down CDC mask mandate sparks mixed emotions and new worries for Biden administration
It was only last week that the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had extended the travel mask mandate through May 3 so administration officials could sort out their next move among conflicting signs about the trajectory of the virus. But several hours after US District Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle ruled that the mandate was unlawful, an administration official told CNN’s Kaitlan Collins that the CDC’s mask mandate was no longer being enforced, which the Transportation Security Administration confirmed late Monday.
Earlier in the day, White House press secretary Jen Psaki, who called the ruling “disappointing,” had urged travelers to continue wearing their masks.
“We would say to anyone sitting out there — we recommend you wear masks on the airplane and … as soon as we can provide an update from here, hopefully soon, we’ll provide that to all of you,” Psaki told reporters at a White House briefing. The Justice Department could file an appeal at any time seeking to halt the ruling, but it was not immediately clear how it would proceed.
That left Americans once again facing conflicting guidance as they tried to game out the risks of boarding crowded buses, trains and planes for their families and particularly for children under 5, who are not yet eligible for the vaccine. On the same day, for example, Philadelphia became the first major US city to reinstate its mask mandate as cases rise in the Northeast, requiring masks in all indoor public places. A number of universities have also reinstated their mask mandates.
Balancing caution with Americans’ desire for normalcy
That has left President Joe Biden and other Democrats in a tenuous position where they are still urging Americans to take the virus seriously — cognizant that another surge from a new variant could trigger a backlash against the party in power in November — but aware that Republicans will quickly weaponize any perceived retrenchment on Covid restrictions. The GOP has already hammered Democrats in some races for being too heavy-handed when it came to mask mandates, limitations for businesses and keeping children out of school during the height of the pandemic, and in some cases, have moved on to attacking Democrats for high gas prices, crime and inflation.
The White House tried to put the focus back on Congress Monday, with Psaki leading off the briefing in part by stating that the administration needs Congress to “urgently do its part to fund the global Covid response” and noting that the administration has requested a supplemental funding package “for our most urgent needs to get shots into the arms and to provide lifesaving tests, treatment and supplies.”
But it also was a sign of lawmakers’ perception that the issue is receding as a top concern for most Americans, as state governments and localities once again take the lead on Covid guidance and response. In the current patchwork, the rules hinge as much on politics as they do on science and that is likely to affect how local lawmakers shape rules for their public transit systems now that the federal rule has been struck down.
As more masks come off, Dr. Paul Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, said Americans could take some comfort in the fact that the most recent strains of the virus have generally produced milder infections than earlier variants in those who have already been infected by Covid-19 or who are vaccinated.
But he noted that there still could be twists and turns ahead even as Americans are eager to put the pandemic behind them.
“For the most part, if you’ve been naturally infected or vaccinated or both, you are protected against serious disease,” Offit told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer Monday night on “The Situation Room.”
“We’re going to have to worry about this virus when a variant arises that is resistant to protection by vaccination or natural infection or both — from serious infection — and that hasn’t happened yet.”