Report: Biden to announce new CDC guidance on wearing masks outdoors tomorrow

AP Photo/Patrick Semansky

Good news, albeit long overdue. And the timing is … interesting, as I’ll explain below.

Ahead of his first address to Congress on Wednesday, the President will give remarks on the state of the pandemic on Tuesday. The three people familiar with the expected announcement said Biden will announce new CDC guidance on whether vaccinated people need to wear masks outdoors, though the final language of the expected announcement is still unclear…

A November review in the Journal of Infectious Diseases found that the odds of viral transmission are 18.7 times greater indoors than out, and less than 10% of Covid-19 infections studied occurred outside. Despite that, several states still have outdoor mask mandates in place.

Is he really going to announce new guidance for *vaccinated* people only? It’s not much more dangerous for the unvaccinated to go unmasked outdoors provided they’re not in a crowd. Oh well — any nudge from the White House to the states to get them to lift their outdoor mask mandates is welcome. And it’s politically useful to Biden, whom you’ll remember asked Americans to wear masks for his first 100 days in office. Those 100 days are almost up. By calling on states to lift their mandates, he can say he was true to his deadline (sort of) by easing off on the mask demands for a particular subset of the population in particular circumstances.

And of course encouraging the vaccinated to take off their masks outside is a small behavioral incentive to vaccine holdouts to go get their shots. We’ve been asking for more of those from the White House and Biden’s about to supply one.

Fauci teased the news in an appearance on “This Week” yesterday morning:

“I think it’s pretty common sense now that outdoor risk is really, really quite low,” Fauci said on ABC’s “This Week.” “If you are a vaccinated person, wearing a mask outdoors, obviously, the risk is minuscule.”…

“What I believe you’re going to be hearing, what the country is going to be hearing soon is updated guidelines from the CDC,” he said.

“The CDC is a science-based organization. They don’t want to make any guidelines unless they look at the data, and the data backs it up. But when you look around at the commonsense situation, obviously, the risk is really very low, particularly if you are vaccinated.”

The CDC is a science-based organization. Is that right? The reason I find the timing interesting is that there’s been a burst of commentary lately in center-left publications questioning the need for outdoor mask mandates. Slate got the ball rolling on April 17 with a piece titled “It’s About Time for Us to Stop Wearing Masks Outside.” On April 22 the New York Times ran not one but two pieces taking up the question, a story headlined “Do We Still Need to Keep Wearing Masks Outdoors?” and a shorter take from the influential David Leonhardt titled “Are Masks Necessary Outdoors?”

Coincidentally, four days later and many, many months after it became clear that the risk of transmission outdoors is tiny, the CDC is suddenly ready to adjust its guidance on outdoor mask-wearing. The inevitable question: Did “science” lead them to that conclusion now or did they take a political cue when they realized that even the liberal conventional wisdom has begun to shift against outdoor mask mandates? If the CDC is following the science then they should have been out in front of the push to lift outdoor mask requirements, not following the parade.

Ed noted that a more politically astute White House might be suspected in this case of having whispered to Slate and Leonhardt to float the idea of lifting outdoor mask mandates as a trial balloon, to see how their readership would react. But (a) a president who’s still wearing masks on Zoom calls out of an abundance of caution isn’t that astute and (b) the “trial balloon” theory would only prove the point about how politicized the CDC is. If the White House’s guidance depends on the mood among David Leonhardt’s audience rather than what the data says about outdoor transmission then the CDC isn’t doing science. It’s doing social engineering based on hunches about behavioral psychology gleaned from small unrepresentative samples.

Anyway, it’s a cinch that the guidance announced tomorrow will be overcautious. I assume we’ll get some variation of this rule touted by the NYT a few days ago:

In what way will the guidance vary between vaccinated and unvaccinated people? Will the vaccinated be told they can skip masks outdoors even if they’re in a crowd but that the unvaccinated shouldn’t? Or will the unvaccinated be told that they should go on wearing masks outdoors while the vaccinated can ditch them?

I’ll leave you with this short but winning clip of Scott Gottlieb on “Face the Nation” yesterday urging the CDC and state officials to start lifting some restrictions now that a meaningful percentage of the population has immunity and a fourth national wave is unlikely. He expanded on that argument in an op-ed today: “Wearing masks and restricting large gatherings were essential to controlling the pandemic’s worst peaks. But infection levels are dropping and vaccination rates rising. This is the time to revisit rules on masking and distancing in low-risk outdoor settings like parks and sports venues. Easing these rules would move more activity outdoors, which reduces viral transmission.”