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CDC’s About Face on Masks Gives Some Governors Whiplash

States of Crisis with Dan Vock
CDC’s About Face on Masks Gives Some Governors Whiplash
By Daniel C. Vock • Issue #40 • View online
The federal government put a smile on many faces Thursday when it announced it would no longer recommend that people who have been vaccinated wear masks indoors.
Those smiles may not have lasted very long for residents in places such as California, Hawaii, Michigan, New Jersey and Virginia, where governors have opted for now to keep their mask mandates in place.
The sudden shift in policy from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is intended to encourage Americans who are eligible (basically, anyone over 12) to get a vaccine.
For governors and other state officials, though, the about face puts them in a tight spot: go along with the CDC’s strategy, which creates a host of its own problems, or stick with the mask mandates that grow more unpopular the day.
That’s the story this week, as the number of new COVID-19 cases in the United States dips to its lowest level since September.
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Onto the news…

President Joe Biden says Americans should be "vaxxed or masked."
President Joe Biden says Americans should be "vaxxed or masked."
The Trouble Governors Face With the CDC's Changing Mask Recommendations
The CDC decision came so swiftly, it caught many governors and health officials off guard. The Biden administration has been trying to demonstrate to the American public that it is making progress in the fight against COVID-19 by marking milestones passed and the tangible benefits that come as a result of its vaccination campaign.
“Today is a great day for America in our long battle with the coronavirus,” President Joe Biden said in a Rose Garden appearance, where both he and Vice President Kamala Harris did not wear a mask. “Now, after a year of hard work and so much sacrifice, the rule is very simple: Get vaccinated or wear a mask until you do. It’s vaxxed or masked. Get vaccinated.”
While the bright-line rule is easy enough for individuals, it is anything but simple for governments and businesses to enforce. It raises several thorny questions, such as: How do you ensure the people who are not wearing masks have been vaccinated? How do you protect people who have not been vaccinated, or who are not fully vaccinated (usually two shots plus two weeks)?
The CDC reports that only 36 percent of Americans are fully vaccinated. Nearly half have received one dose. Those numbers are higher for adults, where almost six in 10 have received at least one shot.
Many governors have developed their own benchmarks for when mask mandates could be lifted, which are sometimes as high as 70 percent of adults being fully vaccinated. But reaching those goals has become more difficult, as the number of doses administered every day has dropped over the last month. Daily doses peaked in mid-April at about 3.5 million a day and have now settled to about 1.9 million a day.
Hawaii Gov. David Ige said Thursday the state would stick to its mask mandate for now, even though the state has one of the highest vaccination rates in the country.
“We are in the process of reviewing those changes in the guidelines and will be announcing appropriate adjustments as we move forward,” Ige said. “The state mask mandate continues to be in force. … We will continue to enforce the mask mandate.”
He noted that only about 40 percent of the state’s population had not been vaccinated, and almost no children had been.
“With the majority of our residents not vaccinated, and [because] we are not able to determine whether someone is vaccinated or not, we will continue to continue to maintain the mask mandate here in the state of Hawaii,” he said.
Many other governors are taking a wait-and-see approach, including the top officials in California, Maryland, Michigan, New Jersey, New York and Virginia.
Other governors enthusiastically embraced the new directive. Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont is one of them.
“Outdoor masking is no longer required for anybody, vaccinated or unvaccinated, unless you are in a very tight area, one of those particularly large events, where I would still recommend it, especially to those who are unvaccinated,” he said. “Indoor masking will still be required for the unvaccinated for a little bit longer.”
About half of the states had mask orders in place as of earlier this week, according to the AARP. More than a dozen more had rescinded previous mask mandates.
Immediately lifting mask mandates could make new problems for governors, though.
One is that it could allow for the easier spread of COVID-19 in communities where vaccination rates are low.
In New Jersey, for example, poor and Black communities have disproportionately low vaccination rates, WABC reported.
“In Newark, only 31 percent of the population is fully vaccinated, compared to more affluent parts of the state like Paramus, where 71 percent of the population have had all their shots,” the New York TV station explained. “So New Jersey’s mask guidelines remain in place for now.”
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has emphasized the need for residents to get vaccinated, rather than imposing new restrictions on gatherings and activities. But the Democratic governor pushed for increased mask use, even among toddlers, as her state tries to put a lid on a surge in COVID-19 infections.
Whitmer’s Vacc to Normal Challenge called for the end to the mask mandate once 70 percent of adults in the state received at least one dose of the vaccine. That number is currently 55 percent. The state’s health department said it is reviewing the new CDC guidance.
(UPDATE: Shortly after this newsletter went out, Whitmer announced she would lift the state’s mask mandate.)
In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom had already contradicted himself on masks once this week before the latest CDC guidance came down. First, he said the indoor mask requirement would go away on June 15. Then, he reversed himself the next day. A third mask policy in a week would be quite confusing for the public.
But there are also political risks, explains Emily Hoeven of CalMatters.
“Aligning the state’s mask guidance with the CDC’s would likely bring the divisive issue of vaccine passports to the fore, as people would presumably have to prove they’re fully vaccinated in order to walk maskless into a store. And less mask-wearing could also increase the state’s risk of another coronavirus surge — something the governor undoubtedly wants to avoid with a recall election looming on the horizon,” Hoeven writes.
Of course, many states have already lifted their mask mandates and a few never imposed them at all.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis went so far this week as to promise that he would pardon any Floridian who violated a state or local mask mandate or social distancing rule.
People who had been prosecuted for such violations have “been treated poorly,” he said on Fox News. “Fortunately, they got a governor that cares.”
Did you enjoy this issue?
Daniel C. Vock

A pandemic. Recession. Civil unrest. State leaders are grappling with several enormous crises all at once. We explore how they're responding.

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