Report: CDC blindsided by White House decision to let it choose whether to appeal travel mask mandate ruling or not

Shawn Thew/Pool via AP

For cripes sake. Is anyone in this administration on the same page on this topic?

Yesterday, in the span of a few hours, we heard Biden say passengers should decide whether to mask, Jen Psaki say public health experts should decide, the secretary of HHS say they’d appeal the court ruling striking down the mandate, and then the DOJ say they’ll appeal only if the CDC believes it’s in the public interest to keep the mandate in place. Quite a game of political hot potato.

Especially since the CDC apparently didn’t know it was playing. Imagine Rochelle Walensky getting a surprise call letting her know she’s suddenly responsible for making the call on a legal decision with potentially major electoral implications this fall.

Eh, I guess she’s used to it after Title 42 and the eviction moratorium, no? The CDC makes more policy nowadays than Congress does.

The Justice Department said Tuesday that it stood ready to appeal the ruling — issued Monday by a Trump-appointed federal judge in Florida — but that it would do so only “subject to the CDC’s conclusion that the order remains necessary for public health.”

That was met with surprise at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which an hour later issued its own statement that did not clearly say whether the health agency wanted the Justice Department to pursue the appeal. The CDC had been reviewing whether to lift the mask order before the court killed it…

One administration official said the CDC would shift the focus of the existing two-week review of the masking policy — announced before the court ruling — to determine whether to appeal, instead of whether to extend the order again, as it was first conceived. If so, the CDC would ask the Justice Department to pursue the case — even as aides there believed an appeal might not succeed…

The incident reflects the muddled messaging, poor coordination, and legal setbacks that have defined some of the worst episodes of the Biden administration’s coronavirus response, leaving large swaths of Americans confused about how to proceed while the private sector moved to set rules on their own.

Biden promised to follow “the science.” Whom did the CDC think he meant when he said that? Of course he was going to defer to them on whether to appeal. If the agency said a mask mandate was no longer necessary and Biden appealed anyway, he’d be accused of punishing Americans with needless restrictions which his own experts deemed superfluous. If the agency said a mandate was necessary and Biden opted not to appeal, his “safety first” liberal base would be enraged that he was putting safety last in the interest of pandering to pandemic-fatigued swing voters.

What choice did he have realistically except to punt to Walensky?

What I want to know is how anyone in the administration was caught off-guard by this decision. They knew that a case involving the transportation mandate was pending before a Trump-appointed judge. They could have taken an educated guess as to what the result would be. It’s bizarre and incompetent that seemingly everyone involved, from Biden to Psaki to Becerra to the DOJ to the CDC, was caught so flat-footed that they didn’t have a coordinated strategy ready to go.

If Biden wants to be politically popular, maybe he should appeal after all. New from the AP:

The partisan split is what you’d expect, with Democrats dividing 80/5 on keeping the mandate and Republicans divided 33/45 against. The poll was taken a few days before the court’s ruling lifting the mandate, as was another new one from Morning Consult finding that 59 percent supported the CDC’s decision to extend the mandate until May 3. Never mind those videos of passengers cheering when they got the news mid-flight that the mandate had been struck down, then. Maybe the bulk of Americans are pro-mandate after all!

Or maybe not. Data nerds are trying to figure out what’s going on with the poll results:

It’s possible that people are giving the “conscientious” answer to pollsters in favor of masks and mandates when they’re asked what the policy should be and then quietly resenting the imposition when they have to fly themselves. It’s also possible, as Silver suggested in a later tweet, that the most risk-averse people aren’t traveling at all due to their fear of infection. If those willing to fly are also more willing to take COVID risks than the average American is, that would explain why polls trend in favor restrictions while airline passengers trend away from them.

It could also be that Ruffini’s right that the videos of cheering fliers will affect public opinion by creating a greater sense of “permission” in voicing one’s opinion against mandates. I’m curious to see whether the numbers will have shifted once we get our first data from a poll taken *after* the ruling.

One expert told Bloomberg that, instead of appealing, Biden might be better off having the FAA issue a mask mandate. A court might find that that agency rather than the CDC has proper administrative authority over airline safety, including health risks, and might uphold an FAA mandate. But that assumes that Biden actually wants a mandate back in place. Maybe he’d rather fight for the CDC mandate in court and lose, in which case he gets to rid himself of the policy *and* rid himself of any blame from the left.

Exit question via Jonathan Last: How would you answer if an old lady seated next to you on a plane turned to you and said, “Hi. I know this is annoying, but would you mind wearing a mask for the flight? I’m immunocompromised and I’m trying to be extra cautious. I know it’s an inconvenience. But would you consider doing it as a favor to a stranger?”