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Removing Masks Becomes the First Bipartisan Activity of Biden’s Washington

After weeks of murky guidance from the CDC on what vaccinated Americans can and cannot do, the sight of a maskless first lady disembarking from her plane went far to clear up confusion — at least in Charleston, where she visited a vaccine clinic for children set up inside a high school.

May 14, 2021 / 06:29 PM IST
U.S. first lady Jill Biden speaks during a visit to a vaccination centre at Capital High School in Charleston, West Virginia, U.S., May 13, 2021. (PC-Oliver Contreras/Pool via REUTERS)

U.S. first lady Jill Biden speaks during a visit to a vaccination centre at Capital High School in Charleston, West Virginia, U.S., May 13, 2021. (PC-Oliver Contreras/Pool via REUTERS)

Jill Biden, the first lady, landed in West Virginia on Thursday just as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that vaccinated Americans could, for the most part, remove their masks. So she did.

After weeks of murky guidance from the CDC on what vaccinated Americans can and cannot do, the sight of a maskless first lady disembarking from her plane went far to clear up confusion — at least in Charleston, where she visited a vaccine clinic for children set up inside a high school.

“We feel naked!” Biden said to a group of junior military officers and reporters who had gathered outside the school to greet her. Seeming to remember that she was the first lady standing in front of a row of cameras, Biden paused. “I didn’t mean it that way,” she said.

Fully vaccinated people not required to wear masks: US CDC

It was a memorable moment that underscored in a very public way just how isolating these past million or so months have been — for one, small talk is harder than it used to be — and just how suddenly the green light toward normalcy had arrived. (Biden removed her mask, she said, because she had seen the new guidance on television en route to West Virginia.)

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Back in Washington, there was another odd occurrence: The removal of masks became the first bipartisan activity of the Biden era. At the White House, President Joe Biden struck a statesmanlike tone when he addressed the public in the Rose Garden.

“We’ve had too much conflict,” he said, “too much bitterness, too much anger, too much polarization of this issue about wearing masks.”

Biden, who last month had been criticized for not removing his mask in the days after the CDC recommended that vaccinated Americans could go without them outdoors, this time promptly addressed the public after the announcement was made.

“You know, some may say — just feel more comfortable continuing to wear a mask,” Biden said. “So, if you’re someone with a mask, you see them, please treat them with kindness and respect.”

It was a quick pivot for a White House that had been strict and to the letter about mask wearing. Only hours earlier, Biden’s advisers had been so strict about the practice that they were known to police private meetings. In the past, Biden would go mask-free only around family members and his closest advisers — at times, officials were reminded by more stringent advisers, including Ron Klain, the chief of staff, about existing guidelines, a senior administration official said.

But during a meeting on infrastructure, held in the Oval Office with a bipartisan group of senators earlier in the day, Biden removed his face covering. So did the lawmakers, Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., told reporters.

In the West Wing, officials, who had been restricted from holding large in-person meetings, began removing their masks as the administration issued new guidance for anyone on the complex: People who had their last required vaccine dose at least 14 days earlier are now permitted to remove face coverings.

The news shocked some junior aides, who knew that an impromptu event was being set up in the Rose Garden, but did not know that they would soon be able to remove their face coverings. Officials who are vaccinated are still tested for the coronavirus at least once per week, and that is expected to continue, according to an administration official who was not authorized to discuss internal planning.

After so many months of masks coupled with social distancing, some officials seemed unable to avoid blurting out the first thing that came to their minds. “You’ve got a great smile,” Vice President Kamala Harris told Biden as he approached the lectern in the Rose Garden.

On Capitol Hill, where nearly all lawmakers are vaccinated and work is slowly returning to normal, the initial response appeared to break down — like nearly everything else — along somewhat more partisan lines.

“Free at last,” Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, said as he walked out of the Senate maskless Thursday afternoon. A few minutes later, his Democratic counterpart, Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, exited through the same ornate corridor with a mask still tightly affixed to his face. He ignored a reporter shouting a question about when he would remove it.

Ever the club-like institution, the Senate had never agreed to put in place a formal mask mandate of the sort many other parts of the government, including the House of Representatives, did. Instead, senators relied on lawmakers following CDC guidelines and sent most of their staff members home for the worst stretches of the pandemic.

Sen. Susan Collins, the Maine Republican who is frequently rated the most bipartisan senator, wasted no time ripping off her mask after receiving a news alert on the change. She showed off a wide grin and was happy to claim some credit for pushing the agency in a public hearing this week to take a less conservative position based on science.

“If people are going to have confidence in the CDC, their guidance needs to be dictated by science and not politics,” Collins said. “And it looks like we made some progress through the questions I and others raised at the hearing earlier this week.”

House Republicans, many of whom have been clamoring for the chamber to get back to normal, immediately ramped up pressure on Speaker Nancy Pelosi to rescind a stringent mask mandate on her side of the Capitol. Conservatives have argued for months that the House should be modeling for the country the benefits of getting vaccinated — including stripping off uncomfortable masks.

“Will @SpeakerPelosi NOW follow the @CDCgov guidance and restore operations to the People’s House?” Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., wrote on Twitter.

Pelosi’s rules have been tied to guidance from the Capitol’s attending physician, who late Thursday issued updated policies for lawmakers and their staff, saying that those who were fully vaccinated could “resume activities that you did prior to the pandemic” more or less as normal inside House office buildings. But the physician, Dr. Brian P. Monahan, said face coverings would still be required for now around the House floor and everywhere on the campus for unvaccinated people.

“For the Hall of the House: The present mask requirement and other guidelines remain unchanged until all members and floor staff are fully vaccinated,” he wrote in a memo circulated to House offices.

Earlier, Pelosi had sought to shift the onus of getting back to normal back onto Republicans, highlighting the refusal by a group of conservatives in the House and some in the Senate to get vaccinated, despite having access to doses for nearly six months now.

“No,” the speaker told CNN when asked if she planned to change the rule. “Are they vaccinated?”

(Authors: Katie Rogers and Nicholas Fandos)/(c.2021 The New York Times Company)
New York Times
first published: May 14, 2021 06:29 pm

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