For the first time in more than two years, airline passengers in the United States are able to fly without being required to wear a mask—and the Biden administration still can’t make up its mind over how it feels about it.
One by one, the White House has seen major components of President Joe Biden’s COVID-19 response struck down in federal court, from his vaccine-or-test requirement for large businesses to his comprehensive mandate that all federal employees and contractors get vaccinated before last year’s holiday season.
But while it has decried those decisions in the past—and continues to fight the latter on appeal—the White House’s response to a district court judge’s ruling on Monday lifting the nationwide mask mandate on airlines and public transit has been far less synchronized.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said that the question of appealing the ruling would be left up to the Justice Department. Dr. Ashish K. Jha, the president’s COVID-19 response coordinator, tweeted that the ruling was “deeply disappointing” and declared that he would continue to mask up on planes. Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra announced that the government would “likely will appeal that ruling” and to “stay tuned.” The Department of Justice’s spokesperson announced that it would appeal the ruling “subject to CDC’s conclusion that the order remains necessary for public health.”
And then Biden himself undercut it all by saying that the question of masking was a matter of personal choice.
“It’s up to them,” Biden told reporters on Tuesday, standing on the tarmac beside Air Force One, where masks are still required.
According to three administration officials familiar with the discussions between the White House and public health experts, the fuzzy public messaging reflects a deeper internal ambivalence on the issue of whether mask and vaccine mandates are even still good policy—or good politics.
“I think different people feel different things,” one administration official told The Daily Beast. “Like, we think it’s legal, and we want to make clear that it is—but the best way to do that might be to drop it.”
“But that’s counterintuitive and could be viewed as a ‘loss’ even if it’s how things would have ended up happening on May 3 when the mask extension expired,” the official admitted, “which annoys people.”
The White House has pushed back on the suggestion that the mask mandate’s sudden repeal despite CDC guidance had left people uncertain as to the rules, with Psaki telling reporters in a gaggle aboard Air Force One that she disputed “the notion that people are confused; we are here to alleviate their confusion.” Psaki encouraged passengers to go with the status quo as the Justice Department considers appealing the ruling, a decision that could take several days.
But after an administration official released a statement on Monday evening acknowledging that the Transportation Security Administration would not be “requiring mask use on public transportation and transportation hubs at this time,” the dam effectively broke. All four major carriers announced that they would lift their mask mandates immediately on all domestic and most international flights.
Even as the airlines, various public transit authorities and the national rail service swiftly announced the end of their mask mandates—some captains even told passengers mid-flight—some stakeholders have expressed increasing irritation with the administration that once aggressively denounced the notion that personal liberty trumped public health, implying that Biden has now left the matter up to individual passengers.
“We urge focus on clear communication so that flight attendants and other frontline workers are not subject to more violence created by uncertainty and confusion,” Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants, the nation’s largest union for flight attendants, said in a statement. Nelson noted that as violent incidents aboard commercial aircraft have skyrocketed in the years since the coronavirus pandemic began, flight attendants have been primary targets of unruly passengers angry over being told to comply with the mask mandate.
“The last thing we need for workers on the frontlines or passengers traveling today is confusion and chaos.”
The inchoate public response to the ruling, a second administration official said, speaks to the Biden administration’s long-standing aversion to being seen as attempting to influence either the Justice Department or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for political purposes.
“The president viewed his predecessor with such incredible disdain for interfering with Justice and CDC, and rightly so,” the official said. “He has said from Day One that matters of public health would be guided by science and not by politics. This is entirely consistent with that promise.”
But the inherently political question of lifting the mask mandate echoes other aspects of the president’s pandemic response, such as the Title 42 public health order that has effectively barred asylum-seekers from entering the U.S. from Mexico, which public health experts have criticized as being too rooted in political, rather than medical, science.
Like nearly everything else related to the pandemic, polling on mask mandates cuts aggressively along party lines. According to a survey released by the Kaiser Family Foundation last month, 48 percent of Americans supported extending the mandate for air travel and public transit, while 51 percent supported allowing the mandate to lapse. Three in four supporters of the mandate identified as Democrats; three in four opponents identified as Republicans.
While the question of an appeal remains unanswered, the White House says that its primary focus on the pandemic is getting more funding to purchase testing and treatment for uninsured Americans—an issue that, despite being much more popular than the mask mandate, has faced much stiffer opposition in Congress.
“Our biggest concern is right now continues to be the fact that we don’t have funding from Congress to ensure that we can return to a point where we have programs for the uninsured,” Psaki said aboard Air Force One. “Those are our biggest concerns.”
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