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.

Major airlines announced Monday evening that masks are now optional on their flights. Amtrak made a similar call, although some regional transit systems — like those in New Jersey and New York — announced they will still require masks.

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.

At the most practical level, the ruling presented the possibility of more chaos in the skies when airlines are seeing a surge in travel for spring break, as well as immediate confusion about whether to mask or unmask for those coursing through the country’s airports. The president of the Association of Flight Attendants — workers who have too often been on the receiving end of mask rage from those who no longer want to wear them — urged the administration to offer “clear communication” about what to do “so that flight attendants and other frontline workers are not subject to more violence created by uncertainty and confusion.”

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.

Cases are increasing in more than half of the 50 states. But Covid-19 hospitalizations are close to their lowest level since the government began tracking that metric in July of 2020. As the use of at-home tests rises, the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation has warned that there is potentially a huge undercount of cases because those results often don’t get reported. They estimate that only about 7% of positive cases in the US are being detected — suggesting that the case rates are 14.5 times higher than reported.
Still, at a time when about 66% of Americans are vaccinated with at least their initial series and less than a third have received their boosters, many are signaling that they are ready to move on and live with the virus — with only 1 in 10 calling the pandemic a crisis in a recent Axios-Ipsos poll.

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.

Rise in at-home testing means we could be undercounting Covid-19 cases even more than before
In a sign that even Democrats have been eager to move away from masking requirements, four senators facing reelections this fall joined with most Republicans in supporting a resolution from GOP Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky last month to repeal the federal mask mandate on public transportation.

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.”

Congress left Washington earlier this month for a two-week recess without passing a $10 billion Covid-19 package that had been crafted through bipartisan negotiations led by GOP Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a Democrat of New York. The package was focused on preparing the US for preventing future outbreaks and included funds for testing, treatments and therapeutics — paid for in part by repurposing funds from last year’s Covid relief package.
But it stalled after Republicans demanded a vote on an amendment that would restore Title 42, a Trump-era rule imposed during the pandemic that allowed the US to immediately send immigrants back to their home countries because of the public health emergency. The Biden administration’s decision to roll back Title 42 by May has become a central issue in this midterm campaign year, drawing criticism not just from Republicans but also from a number of vulnerable Democratic lawmakers, who say the administration has yet to formulate a plan to deal with the surge of immigrants at the southern border that is likely to follow the phase-out of that rule.
While it is unclear how soon Congress might move on the Covid package given the impasse over immigration, Biden could face an embarrassing situation when he leads a second global summit on Covid-19 in May after US lawmakers rebuffed the administration’s requests to provide more funding to subsidize global vaccines. Earlier this month, then-White House Covid-19 response coordinator Jeff Zients framed that failure to include funding for the global Covid response in the latest package as “a real disappointment.”

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.

Ron DeSantis takes his culture war to the next level
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican who raised his political profile by styling himself as a champion for anti-maskers, posted on Twitter Monday that it was “Great to see a federal judge in Florida follow the law and reject the Biden transportation mask mandate.”

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.”

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