The president-elect tiptoed around a question Monday about whether governors should be closing nonessential businesses in hard-hit places.
“Look, it depends on the state,” Biden said, when asked about restrictions. He then picked up his face mask and delivered an extended riff on the importance of wearing masks and noted that he has respect for governors of both parties who have issued mask mandates.
“Does anybody understand why a governor would turn this into a political statement?” he asked, still displaying his paper medical mask. “It’s about patriotism.”
Biden, who will be inaugurated Jan. 20, said that Thanksgiving celebrations should be limited to 10 people, and urged those who are planning on getting together to get tested and wear masks while in the same room. Biden spoke Monday at a news conference in Wilmington, Del.
Biden’s attempts to steer away from shutdowns and the accompanying economic damage reveal just how toxic his team believes that remedy to be — even for a candidate who pledged that Americans can handle hard truths about the pandemic and as governors in some states are instituting restrictions. Biden’s central message during the campaign was that he would provide a more competent and aggressive strategy to combat the pandemic than President Trump, whom he said was responsible for a failed response.
Biden aides repeatedly have pivoted away from questions about shutdowns, trying to avoid the sensitive topic. And on Monday, one top adviser told The Washington Post that Biden has privately said that he does not favor them.
“The consensus on the advisory board is that we are not seeking to impose a national lockdown again,” said Celine Gounder, a clinical assistant professor at the NYU Grossman School of Medicine and a member of Biden’s newly formed coronavirus panel.
Biden, she added, “has not said he would entertain a national lockdown. He has made it very clear in those meetings as well that he really wants to be more targeted in terms of restrictions.”
The message from Biden and his aides on Monday came after his team sent mixed signals last week when one member of his task force floated a four- to six-week national shutdown.
And, for Biden, avoiding widespread shutdowns the country used in the spring means his administration will need to rely on an alternate set of strategies to curtail the virus.
Those include pushing mask-wearing, a politicized and hard-to-enforce behavior, along with putting his attention on the distribution of a vaccine, which has not yet been approved by the federal government. And he’s hoping that a gridlocked Congress can provide some kind of relief to Americans, a legislative hurdle that will get higher next year when a new and even more divided Congress is sworn in.
Meanwhile, coronavirus infections have surpassed 11 million cases in the United States, with hospitals in some areas nearing capacity. The recent spike in cases and hospitalizations is worse than in the spring, when much of the country heeded stay-at-home orders. At least 245,000 Americans have died of covid-19, according to data tracked by The Washington Post.
Democratic governors in Washington state and Michigan have reinstituted restrictions on restaurant capacity and gathering sizes. But they also have avoided stay-at-home orders.
“People are really torn,” said Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.), whose state is seeing huge increases in cases but who is also speaking with small-business owners who she said are “desperate.”
“They need help from the federal government, and the federal government’s not giving it to them,” Dingell said.
Biden has sought to showcase how much he is prioritizing the virus by making early moves focused on it. His first official act as president-elect was to name the coronavirus advisory panel, as well as his White House chief of staff, who oversaw the Obama administration’s successful efforts to combat Ebola, and he has mentioned the virus in his talks with foreign leaders.
“Now that they are in control of the economy, the last thing the Biden team wants to do is to shut down the economy and hamper their first 100 days. But these are state-based decisions that fall to the governors,” said Dan Eberhart, an oil industry executive and Republican donor. “Biden has to navigate the various red and blue states to keep a lid on covid cases while allowing the economic recovery to continue.”
Gounder said the Biden strategy is focused on invoking the Defense Production Act to increase production of protective equipment such as masks and gowns, increasing testing, and focusing on ensuring the effective production and distribution therapeutics and a vaccine.
“I do not think that is on the table at all,” Gounder said of massive shutdowns. “There’s a lot that we’ve learned since the spring.”
After big cities were hit with the virus in the early spring, much of the country shuttered businesses and schools and thwarted travel — sending the U.S. economy into its deepest nosedive since the Great Depression and devastating entire sectors of global commerce. After initially backing shutdowns, Trump moved away from that solution and urged governors to reopen businesses.
Another member of Biden’s coronavirus advisory board took a hard line Sunday against the prospect of a broad economic shutdown — signaling the direction in which Biden was heading.
“We are not in support of a nationwide lockdown and believe there is not a scenario unless — there simply isn’t a scenario because we can get this under control,” said physician Atul Gawande on ABC’s “This Week with George Stephanopolous.”
He added, “The critical parts are understanding what we’ve learned since we did a nationwide lockdown in early April.” He mentioned mask use and ramped-up testing as alternative means of combating the pandemic.
“You can look at New York City, for example, where on a Zip code-by-Zip code basis you can deploy different restrictions in order to get the virus under control. And it’s quite effective. We do not need to go into a nationwide shelter-in-place shutdown,” he said.
That came after an appearance last week on CNN’s “State of the Union,” where Biden’s spokeswoman Kate Bedingfield avoided directly answering questions about whether the president-elect would support shutdowns in the future.
“There are things that Joe Biden has put forward that will make a difference, and that he’s focused on,” Bedingfield said.
“Now, of course, is he taking advice? Is he hearing from the best public health experts who are advising him? Of course, and he’s taking that into account. But he’s put forward really aggressive plans that he intends to implement in order to get the virus under control,” she said.
Not everyone on the advisory panel has stuck to the same message. Last week Michael Osterholm, the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota and a member of the panel, floated national shutdowns lasting from four to six weeks.
“We could pay for a package right now to cover all of the wages, lost wages for individual workers, for losses to small companies to medium-sized companies, for city, states, county governments. We could do all of that,” Osterholm said in an interview last week with Yahoo News.
“If we did that then we could lock down for four to six weeks. If we could do that we could drive the numbers down like they’ve done in Asia, like they did in New Zealand and Australia.”
Osterholm quickly walked back the idea, saying that it was not one being discussed by Biden’s team. “I’ve never discussed any of this with them,” Osterholm told ABC News last week after his Yahoo interview.
Some experts noted that some increased restrictions will be needed from a public health perspective, but the concept must be paired with financial aid that only Congress can deliver.
“As targeted restrictions become necessary to prevent the collapse of the health-care system, the federal government should support the businesses and workers who are most affected,” said Joshua M. Sharfstein, the vice dean for public health practice and community engagement at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, who is not on Biden’s panel. “That’s the responsibility of the current president and Congress, and waiting to the end of the transition period will be waiting too long.”
Sharfstein also noted that the dynamic is different from last year when doctors knew far less about the virus — and there is a clearer sense that shutdowns will end.
“We’re really talking about building a bridge to a widespread vaccine,” Sharfstein said. “It’s not the same sense of uncertainty as in the spring.”
In the final days of the campaign, Biden frequently emphasized that he would not close down the economy to combat the virus, as he fended off Republican attacks suggesting he was being overly restrictive.
“I’m not going to shut down the economy, I’m not going to shut down the country, but I am going to shut down the virus,” he said at a stop in Florida, a line that became a staple of his stump speech.
But Biden didn’t always hew to that rhetoric. In August, he told ABC News that he would shutter the economy if experts said it was necessary.
“I would shut it down. I would listen to the scientists,” he said at the time.
Later, he clarified his remarks, suggesting that a wide-scale economic shutdown would not be needed.