The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The faces of the Biden administration are still sometimes behind masks

President Biden removes his mask as he makes his way to Marine One at the White House on Tuesday. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

A maskless President Biden delivered triumphant remarks Thursday, heralding the news that federal health guidelines had changed to say fully vaccinated Americans need not wear masks indoors or outside in most situations.

Then he went home to Wilmington, Del., where a state mask mandate remained in place. Biden was seen walking out of church with his black mask still firmly fixed to his face. He had it on again Tuesday morning as he emerged from his presidential limousine. Vice President Harris also appeared maskless for the Thursday announcement but wore one over the weekend when she dropped by Washington’s Eastern Market.

First lady Jill Biden was on a day trip to West Virginia as the guidance came out Thursday. She marked it by removing her face covering and declaring, “We feel naked!” But on Friday, as she toured a Washington museum, the mask was back in place.

After the Bidens wore masks everywhere they went for the past year to model behavior, the White House lauded the new guidance as a tremendous victory. Within days, its most visible figures became avatars of the country’s patchwork of local and state rules and norms about face coverings, reflecting the confusion many Americans feel.

The White House declined to provide an on-the-record comment about when exactly the president and other top officials will wear masks. A White House press aide noted that Delaware and Washington still had mask mandates over the weekend, explaining why the president and vice president kept wearing their masks.

The first lady technically veered from the West Virginia indoor mask mandate, which was in effect when she removed hers Thursday inside a high school gym. The state’s indoor mandate was lifted the next day.

“This message is getting confusing,” said Leana Wen, a physician who previously served as Baltimore’s health commissioner and has been critical of the Biden administration’s handling of masking guidance. “Is [Biden] supposed to adapt every time to a local law? And then talk about what local law is?”

Wen said it made sense for Biden to nix the mask mandate outdoors, but a more nuanced indoors approach would have been more prudent — like taking his mask off when he was around others whom he knows to be vaccinated.

Many states have dropped or rolled back their mask mandates, including Maryland and Virginia. Others, including California and New Jersey, plan to keep theirs in place for now.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is expected to release more detailed guidance about mask-wearing in coming days for businesses and children, particularly those who are not eligible for vaccination.

Celine Gounder, who served on Biden’s coronavirus task force during the presidential transition, said she hopes the CDC will add more nuance to its blanket guidance — tying mask-removal markers like low community spread of the virus and higher vaccination rates.

Last week’s message from the Biden administration was “less than ideal,” said Gounder, who teaches at New York University’s Grossman School of Medicine. Among other criticisms, she said the guidance should have been issued to state and local health departments rather than being a wholesale change in U.S. domestic health policy based on a single agency’s recommendations.

Gounder said it would be helpful for Biden to model behavior that takes local metrics about the virus into account, and talk about that.

“Because they are going to be traveling in different places where those conditions on the ground are going to be different, they may alter their behavior to adapt to local conditions,” Gounder said. “People are going to have different levels of risk tolerance.”

People willing to get the vaccine but who have not yet will be particularly at risk as masking is rolled back. Gounder expects both the vaccinated and unvaccinated to stop wearing masks as societal pressure to do so recedes.

She had hoped Biden would make some of these points Monday when he gave an update on the coronavirus response. Instead the president focused his remarks on a new initiative to send additional vaccine doses abroad, previewing new vaccination numbers and touting his child tax credit. Biden said little about masks.

“Some people may want to continue to wear a mask even if they are fully vaccinated,” Biden said, repeating a refrain from last week. “Let’s all be kind and respectful to one another as we come out of this pandemic and respect those who want to continue to wear a mask even if they’ve been vaccinated.”

White House press secretary Jen Psaki defended the CDC’s decision Monday and the Biden administration’s change in policy, which she said is rooted in a desire to “rebuild trust with the American people” by empowering health and medical experts to determine health policy.

“It may mean it’s going to take some time for various sectors to implement,” Psaki said, offering a partial explanation for what’s become a patchwork of rules.

Psaki also suggested that communities will diverge from the federal recommendations in some scenarios.

“There are going to be populations and communities where they take a different approach to implementation,” she said, suggesting that the vaccination rates in various places could become determinative. “We certainly respect and value that.”

The White House had little warning that the CDC planned to reverse its guidance last week and appeared to be reacting to the news from their own administration in near real time.

Jill Biden landed in West Virginia shortly after the Rochelle Walensky, the CDC director, announced the new masking guidance. The first lady did not wear a mask when she stepped off her plane, a departure from her past practice.

She was photographed with her mask off as she visited with people getting their vaccinations in a Charleston, W.Va., high school, even though a statewide indoor mandate was in place. Her press office did not comment on why she removed her mask ahead of the change to the state mandate.

In brief remarks Thursday at the high school, she noted the change in federal policy.

“Things are getting better every day,” Biden said, according to her prepared remarks. “We’re getting back those things we lost for so long — hugging the people we love, smiling at strangers.”

The following day she was in Washington, visiting the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, which was reopening after being closed for months because of the pandemic.

“I guess I can take off my mask while I’m speaking,” she said. “Inch by inch we’re moving forward, and we’ve got to just get this pandemic under control.”

She kept her mask on for the rest of the tour — in keeping with the museum’s rules and Washington’s mask mandate, which was still in effect.