WASHINGTON — A day after President Joe Biden, barefaced and smiling, announced that fully vaccinated Americans can shed their masks — a major move past one of the most visible effects of the pandemic — the reaction at the White House and across the federal government was mixed, as workers adjusted to a policy that took many by surprise.
Inside the White House, the change came as an abrupt about-face for many staffers after months of pleas from the president and senior officials to wear masks as they habitually did so. Two White House officials said only a few senior staff members were made aware of the new mask guidelines the day before they were announced.
By Friday morning, no staffers were seen wearing masks around the West Wing, and during the daily press briefing press secretary Jen Psaki and economic adviser Cecilia Rouse entered the briefing room without masks on before a group of mostly mask-less reporters.
But it was a different scene for the Secret Service agents posted around the White House on Friday, who continued to wear masks. A Secret Service official said there was no change to their internal mask policy as the agency reviews the new guidance. It will likely have an update by next week, the official said.
Even first lady Jill Biden didn’t seem to have fully transitioned into mask-less life.
She arrived for a visit to the National Museum of African American History on Friday morning with a mask around her wrist. “Isn’t it great? Don’t you feel good without it?” she told NBC News.
But after her remarks, she was seen putting her mask back on as she toured the building as did the Secret Service agents accompanying her.
While the president pointed to science as the driving force behind the new guidelines, getting millions of Americans to drop their masks has political ramifications for him as well, as he tries to demonstrate that he is moving the country back to some semblance of normal life — and to encourage many more people to get vaccinated as a way to safely return to a pre-pandemic existence.
The new guidance also undercuts a frequent Republican attack on Biden for his emphasis on wearing masks and mask mandates put in place by Democratic governors. The day before the mask guidance change, GOP commentators mocked the White House for a photograph showing the president and congressional leaders wearing masks during an Oval Office meeting even though they had all been vaccinated.
On Capitol Hill, about half of House members and aides were still wearing masks on Friday, with both Republicans and Democrats appearing hesitant to make the change. Masks are still required on the House floor.
While Republicans appeared particularly quick to embrace the new guidelines — Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., proclaimed “free at last” and Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, waved her mask in the air in celebration when the news broke — a number of Republicans staffers were still wearing masks Friday.
Some Hill staffers seemed unsure of what to do, showing up at work with a mask on then taking it off when they saw their colleagues without one. But many U.S. Capitol Police officers were seen without masks on the Hill, with one encouraging an NBC reporter to take hers off.
At the Pentagon, where masks have been required in public areas, employees were notified Friday morning that fully vaccinated Department of Defense personnel are no longer required to wear a mask indoors or outdoors at department facilities. By lunch time, the hallways were filling up with mask-less faces. Roughly a third of service members, including activity duty, reserve and National Guard, are fully vaccinated.
Across other federal agencies, the Biden administration is amending an executive order it issued on Day One when it comes to a federal workforce mask and distancing mandate to reflect the latest CDC guidelines, said a White House official.
“The Federal Workforce EO requires compliance with CDC guidelines on masking and other measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19, and that includes the new guidance issued today. Agencies should follow current CDC guidance,” the official said in a statement.
Psaki said that the White House is working to implement the new guidelines across the federal government and that it may take a couple of days to make the updates for federal lands and federal properties.
The Office of Management and Budget sent a memo obtained by NBC News instructing all federal agencies and their employees that fully vaccinated staff can ditch their masks, but stating that its policy on “maximum telework and workplace occupancy limits” remains in place.
And so, with many federal employees still working remotely, the effect of Biden's announcement on the federal workforce at the end of the week remained muted — and the political effect remained to be seen.