WASHINGTON — On Friday morning, first lady Jill Biden participated in an Arbor Day event on the North Lawn of the White House, shoveling some soil on a newly planted linden tree. Such events are routine for a presidential spouse and go largely unnoticed. Indeed, there was nothing readily remarkable about Friday’s event, save for one detail: The first lady, who was vaccinated against the coronavirus months ago, wore a face mask.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, vaccinated people no longer have to wear face masks outdoors, except when in large-scale settings like concerts and political rallies. And yet both she and the president have continued to diligently mask up when outdoors, as have Vice President Kamala Harris and second gentleman Doug Emhoff. In fact, President Biden wore a face mask on Tuesday as he walked alone to the outdoor podium where he announced the new outdoor masking rules.
Biden gave a circuitous answer when he was asked by a “Today” show interviewer this week about whether he would continue to wear a mask both indoors and out. He suggested he would eventually take off his mask outside but called keeping it on a “small precaution to take,” given that people frequently approach him. Masks keep the virus from spreading. So, of course, do vaccines.
The president eventually settled on what appeared to be a defense of keeping the mask on as much as possible. “It’s a patriotic responsibility, for God’s sake,” Biden told his interviewer.
An exceedingly mundane reality could be in the works. Frequently moving between indoor and outdoor environments, as the president does throughout the day, sometimes makes it easier to keep a mask on, as opposed to having to fish it out of a pocket or handbag every few minutes. The new mask rules issued this week suggest that vaccinated people continue wearing masks indoors. Unvaccinated and half-vaccinated people are urged to continue wearing masks in most outdoor situations.
“The likelihood of my being able to be outside and people not come up to me is not very high,” Biden explained during his “Today” interview.
Still, his continuing to wear a face mask outside could lead to confusion about how to interpret the new CDC advice, which some have criticized as needlessly complex.
Conservatives have seized on the discrepancy, arguing that the White House is doing little more than putting its own pieties on display. Some public health officials have joined the criticism too, describing what they say is a missed opportunity by the Biden administration to tout the post-vaccine normal as closely resembling the pre-pandemic one.
“I understand the desire to project caution,” says Dr. Leana Wen, the former health commissioner of Baltimore, who now teaches public health policy at George Washington University. “But projecting hope is really important too, as is showing the nation the president’s confidence in the power of the vaccines.”
In an email to Yahoo News, Dr. Jayanta Bhattacharya, a professor of medicine at Stanford University, wrote that “the new CDC guidance on what situations it deems safe to wear masks for the vaccinated and non-vaccinated is really confusing. So President Biden is defaulting to the position he deems most responsible and safe, which is to wear masks more or less everywhere.”
All the versions of the coronavirus vaccine are highly effective, in particular when it comes to preventing serious and critical illness. The speed with which they were developed, tested and manufactured has been praised as a wonder of modern science.
Biden and his top staffers routinely tout the coronavirus vaccine. They often do so with mask in pocket or in hand. On Tuesday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki fielded a question about why the president had worn a mask to his announcement, when it could have arguably made more sense to model the new rules by going mask-free.
“It will take some time to adjust and adapt for all of us,” Psaki answered.
If the first lady’s tree-planting ceremony was any indication, that adjustment is still in the works. To be sure, she wasn’t alone, with several other officials watching from several feet away. Even in the highly unlikely event that those other officials were not vaccinated (most White House staffers were, like the president and first lady, vaccinated over the winter), the CDC guidance says that vaccinated people do not have to don a facial covering when gathering in small or medium-size groups of people, even if some of those people are themselves unvaccinated. That is because a vaccinated person is thought to have an extremely low risk of spreading the coronavirus.
Harris wore a mask outdoors when greeting Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker on an airport tarmac earlier this week. All three officials are vaccinated. Speaking later, Harris urged vaccinated people to act as role models to friends and family who have yet to be inoculated. But in continuing to wear a mask outdoors, she and Biden have arguably missed a chance to advertise the attractions of the vaccinated life.
“Wearing a mask was our only means of protection before we had a vaccine,” tweeted Dr. Nicole Saphier, an oncologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York and a Fox News medical contributor, arguing that continuing to wear masks outdoors is “undermining vaccine effectiveness.”
The debate over outdoor masking comes as demand for the coronavirus vaccine appears to be dropping. Some elected leaders have offered savings bonds and other enticements to get vaccinated, but perhaps nothing is as inviting as simply being allowed to live as one did before the coronavirus ground human civilization to a halt. That is the promise of vaccines.
“We need to send the right message, and right now that message is ‘Get your vaccine, and the future is bright,’” says Dr. Marty Makary, a Johns Hopkins oncologist. In an email to Yahoo News, Makary expressed concern that “the CDC guidance is feeding into a distorted public perception of risk and causing people to question our message on vaccine protection.”
Studies have shown that it is extremely difficult for the coronavirus to spread outdoors, even in situations where no one is vaccinated. The CDC could have conceivably said that there was no need for anyone to mask outdoors, except in crowded situations.
The White House, the Office of the Vice President and the CDC all did not respond to a request for comment from Yahoo News. During a Friday briefing of the White House pandemic response team, a reporter asked that team’s coordinator, Jeff Zients, when Biden would stop wearing a mask outdoors. Zients ignored the question.
“The risk of COVID transmission, outdoors, to someone who is fully vaccinated and is keeping distance, is zero,” said Wen. “I think it would help if the president demonstrates which activities he is able to resume, and make the point every time that he is able to do them because of vaccination.”
Doing so would be in keeping with the incentive structure that CDC Director Rochelle Walensky described on Tuesday. “If you are fully vaccinated, things are much safer for you than those who are not yet fully vaccinated,” she said in announcing that the fully vaccinated did not need masks outdoors in most situations.
The Bidens’ continued caution (as well as that of the vice president and second gentleman) is a stark contrast to how the White House operated under Donald Trump. He saw masks as a sign of weakness, mocking Biden for wearing one during the campaign. Administration officials were implicitly discouraged from following advice that was frequently issued from within the White House Briefing Room by Trump’s own public health officials. Even a coronavirus outbreak within the cramped confines of the West Wing failed to change the anti-mask attitude.
Conservatives were already angry about outdoor mask mandates before Tuesday’s revision, with Fox News pundit Tucker Carlson delivering an angry diatribe against outdoor masking on Monday night. The disconnect between the new CDC guidance and the president’s continued insistence on wearing masks in most situations seemed to give his critics a new opening.
The Republican Party seized on footage of the masked Bidens walking across the South Lawn to Marine One, the presidential helicopter. “Joe and Jill Biden are FULLY vaccinated,” a tweet from a GOP-affiliated account said. “Why are they ignoring CDC guidance on wearing masks outside?”
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who famously punctuated his speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference in late February with a “Braveheart”-like scream of “freedom,” charged that the South Lawn video was evidence that Biden was “virtue signaling to his base” and trying to “control the American people.”
Conservatives have maintained that mask mandates are a form of social control, though such mandates have been instituted at various points throughout the pandemic by Republican elected officials, including President Trump.
More measured and evidence-based criticism like Wen’s holds that just as it was necessary for the White House to model mask wearing, it is now critical to show Americans the benefits of vaccination. She envisioned Biden “perhaps even having indoor meetings, without masks, with his fully vaccinated aides.”
That doesn’t appear likely, at least for now. Earlier this week, Psaki told NPR that top staffers in the West Wing don’t meet face to face, even though all are vaccinated.
“We all sit in our offices and do our morning and evening senior staff meetings on video,” she said. “We have to be models, too.”
Read more from Yahoo News: