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Biden administration scrambles on next steps on travel mask mandate

The question of what action to take, if any, poses a complex political, health and legal challenge for the administration as it tries to chart a new course in the pandemic.
Image: Masks
Travelers wear masks as they check in for a Qatar Airways flight at Los Angeles International Airport on Feb. 4, 2021.Patrick T. Fallon / AFP via Getty Images

WASHINGTON — The Biden administration is at a crossroads over one of the last highly visible signs of the pandemic, masks on airplanes, as officials scramble to determine their next steps.

A ruling by a federal judge Monday striking down the Biden administration’s mandate that masks be worn on planes, trains, and other public transportation caught the White House off guard. A day later, administration officials were still reviewing what additional actions they could take, people familiar with the matter said. 

The question of what action to take, if any, poses a complex political, health and legal challenge for the administration as it tries to chart a new course for the country around living with the virus while keeping vigilant about the threat from new variants. 

Biden, asked by reporters Tuesday whether Americans should be wearing masks, said "that’s up to them." He said he hadn't spoken to the CDC since the ruling.

The next potential legal move by the administration would be to ask an appeals court to issue an emergency stay to block the judge’s ruling. But the Justice Department didn’t immediately make that move on Monday, allowing the mandate to be lifted and people to begin going maskless on planes. 

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said that it could take several days for the Justice Department to challenge the ruling and that the administration believes the mask mandate should have remained in place.

"The CDC said it needed 15 days to assess the impact of an uptick in cases on hospitalizations, deaths and hospital capacity, we still feel that is entirely reasonable based on the latest science," Psaki said Tuesday. "Public health decisions shouldn’t be made by the courts. They should be made by public health experts."

One person close to the administration said there was a concern inside the White House that the U.S. could lose on appeal. Officials at Health and Human Services were still scrambling on what their next move would be, the person said.

Inside the White House, some officials didn’t view the ruling as significant because the mandate was potentially going to be lifted in a little over a week anyway, a senior administration official said. 

At the same time, the official said polling shows Democrats support masking and so the court decision could allow Biden to get credit from members of his own party for taking a prudent approach to public health. So while some Democrats viewed the White House’s position as missing an opportunity to get credit from many Americans for facilitating a major symbolic and practical transition in the pandemic, there would have been some risk if Biden took that approach if there’s another surge in Covid cases, the official said.

While the ruling only ends the mask mandate days before it was set to expire, a decision not to appeal risks setting a dangerous precedent for how public health decisions are made in the future, public health experts said. 

“If the CDC loses its power to prevent the spread of infectious diseases between states or coming into the country, we are all at great risk,” said Richard Besser, former acting director of the CDC, in an interview on the "TODAY" show.  “So I hope this ruling is challenged because in the next pandemic, the next big public health crisis, we want the CDC to be able to put in scientifically based, rational restrictions that protect people’s health.”

Politically though, it could provide a benefit to Democrats, who have been trying to move away from mask mandates after public backlash among independents and moderates ahead of the 2022 midterm elections.

“People want to get back to normal, so in the short term the relaxation of mask mandates probably does help with that politically," said Democratic strategist Josh Schwerin, who was a senior strategist for the largest super PAC supporting Biden in the 2020 election, Priorities USA. "The danger is if this change also leads to higher infection rates over time and extends the pandemic even further."

The White House has largely taken a hands-off approach over the decision of how long to continue the federal travel mask mandate, saying it was leaving the decision up to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

The CDC said last week it was extending the travel mask mandate to May 3 rather than letting it expire on Monday to give the agency more time to monitor whether an uptick in cases would lead to a surge in severe illnesses. 

Shortly after the ruling, Psaki saidthat the decision was “disappointing" and that people should continue to wear masks on mass transit.

Masks were still required Tuesday on Air Force One for those traveling with Biden during a trip to New Hampshire, the White House said.