by Neil H. Buchanan
By pretending that there were only scientific decisions to be made in dealing with COVID-19, the Biden Administration has allowed non-politicians to make an extraordinarily consequential political decision. I completely understand why Biden's people want to make it all look apolitical, but it is not. And because the politics of mask-wearing was already so badly distorted by misinformation, this dereliction of duty could potentially lead to a real disaster.
Before we get there, however, it is important to emphasize that this is the first and only genuine blunder by the Biden team. They were having an especially impressive run when it came to dealing with the pandemic, particularly in straightening out the messes that the previous administration left behind. And because the scientific community had done such a great job in bringing vaccinations to the public so quickly (for which, as I explained recently, Donald Trump deserves at best minimal credit because he allowed it to happen without actively screwing it up), Biden was able to put the country on a path that seemed likely to lead us back to something resembling normal life in very short order.
Even so, Biden was taking flak for being too cautious, and red states in particular were acting as if the pandemic had already been solved, even as we continue to add more than 500 deaths per day to the grim total that is now approaching 600,000 lost Americans. I certainly understand why Biden wanted to make this happen right away, and why he wanted it to look apolitical. But again, this is political. The only real questions are how much damage this mistake will cause, and whether it is possible to mitigate its effects.
What exactly, is the problem? Late-night comedian Seth Meyers slyly but devastatingly exposed what went wrong in this country's fight against the pandemic: "The CDC announced last week that fully vaccinated Americans no longer need to wear masks in most indoor or outdoor settings. 'Oh my God, finally,' said unvaccinated Americans."
When the CDC's announcement came out, I was as delighted as anyone by the unexpected news. Even so, I wondered what it means to say that unvaccinated people will continue to live under old rules while vaccinated people could go maskless in most places. I watched intently as Dr. Anthony Fauci made the round of talk shows, waiting to hear something -- anything -- suggesting that the Biden Administration had a plan to deal with the problem that Seth Meyers would soon capture so pithily.
The only substantive argument that I heard, from Fauci and other scientists along with Biden spokespeople, is that the CDC's new guidance was going to encourage more people to become vaccinated, because "the science" now tells them how great life can be once a person has been vaccinated. Color me dubious.
It is true that, as Fauci pointed out, the CDC and Biden had been harshly criticized by many Republicans for making it seem that being vaccinated was not "worth it." After all, if Biden was signaling by his own behavior that being vaccinated would not make life noticeably different, people were supposedly wondering, "What's in it for me?"
We are thus in a strange world in which being 95 percent protected against a raging virus, and 100 percent guaranteed not to die or even become hospitalized if one does catch the virus, apparently is no big deal. "Yeah, that's nice and all, but what else ya got?" Ohio's million-dollar lottery to encourage vaccinations perfectly captures how much politicians are assuming that vaccination is not an appealing thing in and of itself. And once we take “you can go maskless (only) if you get vaccinated” out of the equation, what do we think will happen?
I definitely understand the difficult politics, and Biden certainly is too cautious to go anywhere near "vaccine passports." Now, however, he backs a policy that cannot work without them, which puts us all in a world where, within only a few days, everyone was simply admitting that this will be "an honor system."
This is probably unnecessary, but I will nonetheless lay out here why this political decision ignores real-world behavior. It has nothing to do with the scientific facts about the coronavirus in particular but instead is all about buck-passing.
When under-age people try to get into bars, bouncers and bartenders will often default to a simple answer: "Sorry, but I'll lose my liquor license!" That is not merely a dodge. A profit-seeking, conflict-avoidant bar owner would love to sell drinks to as many people as possible, all things equal. She might or might not understand on her own that there is a good reason not to sell alcohol to a 16-year-old, but even if she wants to say no for her own reasons, she can pass the buck and say, "Hey, kid, it's not my call." Importantly, this ends the conversation in nearly all cases. It is no longer up for debate.
This is the basis for the concerns from business owners and their employees about not wanting to be the "mask police." It is true that, even when masks were mandated, some customers were not willing to accept the it's-not-my-call passing of the buck, because so many people had been whipped into an angry frenzy by Trump and Fox News. Even so, front-line workers could at least honestly say that wearing a mask is required by law, not by their own preferences or their boss's chosen rules. Some people were jerks about it, but most of the time, it was enough to say, "It's the law."
This will unravel quickly. In fact, it already has. My own university, which (despite the particularly bad political atmosphere here at the state level) has been a real leader in fighting the pandemic, issued a new policy in response to the CDC's announcement. Here is the opening paragraph:
Given recently released national guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and in concert with the State University System, the University of Florida will make masks optional rather than required for students, faculty, staff and guests on UF property and in UF facilities effective immediately. Those not fully vaccinated for COVID-19 are recommended to continue wearing masks, according to CDC guidance.
So right now, a major university with a top-notch medical school has completely eliminated mask-wearing requirements, but unvaccinated people "are recommended" to wear masks -- and this is all justified by "CDC guidance." To be sure, UF probably did not want to open itself to the ridicule that would have accompanied an announcement that unvaccinated people still must wear masks on campus ("How will they know?"), but that is the whole point. Small store owners and individuals are supposed to do the responsible thing, but even large organizations are acting as if "mask optional" for everyone is consistent with the science.
[Update on 5/19/2021: A reader from another university in the Sunshine State provided key information in the comments section: "Governor DeSantis and his puppets in the Florida legislature deserve most of the blame; they made it illegal in Florida for schools, private businesses and government agencies to require students, faculty, staff, customers and clients to be vaccinated as a condition of attendance, employment or entrance." I agree that this explains my otherwise well-run university's decision, another in a long line of situations in which our administrators can only do so much to mitigate bad decisions emanating from Tallahassee. I would only add that it is still not clear why the university does not continue to formally require that unvaccinated people wear masks, as that does not seem to have been the target of the politicians' intervention. It still seems like an effort to avoid being ridiculed, when they could at least have said, "It is VERY important for unvaccinated people to wear masks.]
This morning, the "Morning Joe" team discussed the new guidelines and New Jersey's decision to continue to require indoor masks for everyone, vaccinated and unvaccinated alike. Although Mika Brzezinski did in the end weigh in with her usual quiet wisdom, most of the segment involved the other two hosts harrumphing about how ridiculous it was for New Jersey not to follow the crowd and drop all requirements.
More accurately, Joe Scarborough's argument was not that NJ should follow the crowd but that it should "follow the science." And what was that science? One would never know it from listening to Scarborough, but it is worth emphasizing that the new part of the CDC's guidance was that vaccinated people can go maskless in most places. He, however, continued to insist that "the science" now proves that NJ should do what nearby states have done, which is to allow everyone to go maskless.
This is exactly why the Biden Administration's role in this mess was so poorly thought out. There are three possibilities:
(1) Allow vaccinated people to go maskless, but credibly enforce masking rules for everyone else.(2) Say that you are only allowing vaccinated people to go maskless, but do nothing to prevent everyone from going maskless.(3) Do not allow anyone to go maskless (at least indoors) until the CDC says that even unvaccinated people are not recommended to wear masks.
Option (1) is off the table, because "freedom" or something. Biden allowed the CDC to say something that sounds like (2), but in fact it was Biden's political decision not to go with (1) or (3). NJ Governor Phil Murphy chose (3), which is a different and more responsible political decision.
Again, as soon as we get into "honor system" territory, this obviously breaks down. When I go onto campus here in Gainesville, I will know that many maskless people are probably unvaccinated, and I will not feel as free or normal as I otherwise would. People who are at all skittish -- and there are apparently many such people -- are being prevented from enjoying the full benefits that being vaccinated should bring.
Leana Wen, a physician and former public health commissioner in Baltimore who writes frequently for The Washington Post's editorial page, offered a warning under this headline: "The CDC’s mask guidance is a mess. Biden needs to clean it up." Her final paragraph is harsh but honest:
But a decision on something as overarching and consequential as ending mask mandates should have been directed from the very top, by the president himself. Biden needs to course-correct, now. If he does not, the existing confusion could harm Americans’ health, prolong the pandemic, and paradoxically diminish confidence in the CDC and its ability to safeguard the public’s health.
As I wrote at the beginning of this column, the questions at hand are how much harm this mess will cause and whether it can be mitigated. What we need to know is how much worse things will become now that so many people are acting as if everything can go back to normal. How many more people will die? Will those people be mostly front-line workers? If things do get worse, how much political courage will there be to say, "We now have to go backward"?
We are, in fact, saying to the health care system: "We could have waited a bit longer and gotten your case loads down to virtually nothing. Instead, we have decided that you will have to continue to devote precious resources to dealing with a pandemic that will, at best, recede more slowly than it otherwise would have. Sorry, but it was politically convenient to continue to put excessive stress on your people and facilities."
The political noise around Biden since he became president has been almost entirely silly. The supposed border crisis was explainable and (to the extent that it even existed) abated without anyone noticing. The disappointing jobs number two weeks ago was a blip that caused Republicans to scream bloody murder, but Biden was right not to engage. The temporary gas-hoarding crisis is already old news. But allowing the CDC to get out of its lane and make an unwise political decision that sets us up for more trouble on the pandemic was truly bad, and it was an unforced error as well.
As it happens, I no longer believe that we need to think about any mistakes that Biden makes in terms of their effects on electoral politics. After all, Republicans are in the final stages of making sure that elections will become empty exercises in a one-party state. So this is not a matter of saying that Biden "blew it for the Democrats." That ship has sailed.
Given that 2021 and 2022 are the last two years in which Democrats will be able to prevent the Republicans from doing their worst, however, I would have hoped that Biden and his people would have done a better job protecting the public's health, simply because it is the right thing to do. And why not go out on a win?