The mask mandate culture wars are not going away

WASHINGTON — As some states, most notably Texas, begin to lift mask mandates, the Biden administration is launching an informal but energetic campaign to prevent others from following suit. Top doctors in the White House coronavirus task force are arguing that even with 2 million Americans now being vaccinated daily, thinking the pandemic is all but over is the surest way to extend that pandemic’s length.

“Wear a mask,” White House coronavirus senior adviser Andy Slavitt said during a briefing with reporters on Friday. “Not forever, but for now.”

That warning comes just days after Gov. Greg Abbott made Texas the largest state in the nation without a mask mandate. Abbott appears to have made that decision without consulting his own scientific advisers. “Texas has been making some real progress, but it’s too soon for full reopening and to stop masking around others,” one of those advisers told the Dallas Morning News.

Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves also canceled his state’s mask mandate this week.

More than a dozen other states are preparing to lift their own orders this spring, NBC News reported earlier this week, even though the country is recording some 60,000 new infections per day. Without launching the kind of full-scale culture war that former President Donald Trump relished, the Biden administration has been pushing back against such moves.

Speaking at the White House on Wednesday, President Biden said Texas had made a “big mistake,” adding that “the last thing we need is Neanderthal thinking” on masks.

A Covid-19 restriction sign
A sign in Austin, Texas. (Montinique Monroe/Getty Images)

Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has also spent much of the week urging Americans not to toss their face masks into the dustbin just yet.

“I know the idea of relaxing mask wearing and getting back to everyday activities is appealing,” Walensky said on Friday, “but we’re not there yet.”

She added that “we have seen this movie before,” a reference to increased community spread when public health restrictions were lifted.

Biden has promised to have enough doses of the coronavirus vaccine to inoculate every American by the end of May. The more the virus is allowed to spread until then, the more likely it is that a vaccine-resistant strain develops. At Friday’s briefing, Dr. Anthony Fauci displayed a graphic that showed new cases have reached a plateau in recent days, after a precipitous drop that followed the winter holiday surge.

“A virus cannot mutate if it doesn’t replicate, and it replicates in infected individuals,” Fauci explained in what he said was a minicourse in basic virology. “A high baseline level of community spread of the virus favors mutation and the evolution of variants.” Those variants evolve, Fauci went on to say, according to the principle of natural selection, which necessarily means they could be more difficult to contain with current vaccines.

The point was clear: To keep those new variants from emerging, and potentially prolonging the pandemic, people should continue wearing face masks, limiting community spread.

Walensky said on Friday that new variants of the coronavirus have been found in 48 states. In general, vaccines are still highly effective against them, but there are concerns that vaccine-resistant strains could emerge.

Friday’s briefing was accompanied by a new study from the CDC that found “mandates were associated with decreases in daily COVID-19 case and death growth rates.” That same study found that allowing indoor dining in restaurants caused the virus to proliferate at a greater rate.

People seen partying at the Elbo Room
Maskless revelers at an outdoor bar in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. (mpi04/MediaPunch/IPX via AP)

The scientific justification for masks has become increasingly clear over the course of the pandemic. It was almost a year ago that public health officials in the Trump administration advised people against wearing masks, in large part because they feared that a run on facial coverings would leave hospital workers without protection.

There was also an emphasis on cleaning surfaces and washing hands, and while both are sound public health measures, researchers eventually confirmed that the virus spreads almost exclusively through airborne particles.

Opponents of facial coverings have used early conflicting medical claims, issued when data was sparse, to mount their case against masks. Some of that opposition has gone away, especially as Trump has receded from public view. But opposition remains, especially as Americans of all political persuasions succumb to pandemic fatigue.

The Biden administration has tried to dispel that opposition without engaging in the kind of acrimonious back-and-forth that marked Trump’s handling of the pandemic, especially when he disagreed with Democratic governors. At the same time, the new administration is working against a weary public plainly eager to declare the battle against the coronavirus over and done with.

“There is a light at the end of this tunnel,” Walensky said on Friday, “but we must be prepared for the fact that the road ahead may not be smooth.”


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