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CDC’s Confusing Announcement on Masks Creates a Dangerous Honor System

Hundreds of epidemiologists had fully expected the prior mask mandates to remain in place for at least another year.

A sign asks visitors to wear a face mask inside of a shopping mall in Manhattan on May 13, 2021, in New York City.

I found myself out and about with several vaccinated friends this weekend, just after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) abruptly blew up its mask guidance to the consternation of millions. The strange chaos of “mask rules” was on vivid display wherever we went — they were required at inside venues and crowded outdoor spaces, but once we were seated inside a restaurant, the mask could come off no matter how clustered we were — reminding me why I was more comfortable at home than anywhere else over these last 14 months.

The new CDC mask guidelines state that if you’re fully vaccinated, you’re pretty much free to hang that sucker on a hook and enjoy breathing air that does not smell like your face. (I never knew my face had a scent until COVID, another dollop of pandemic wisdom I could have done without.)

The announcement tried very hard to be the virus version of V-E Day, a moment of celebration to be shared by all. Instead, it had many eyeing each other, and especially the deliberately unvaccinated, with alarmed distrust. We’re supposed to trust those guys? Combined with some deeply curious timing, and what we have here is the first bona fine both-feet bollix of the Biden administration.

“[T]he huge policy turnaround caught senior White House and administration officials, medical experts, elected officials and business leaders completely off guard,” reported The Washington Post, “and prompted some physicians to criticize the move as premature. Some Democratic governors were angered by the White House’s rollout, arguing the move effectively passed the buck to states and businesses to implement the new rules without any assistance. The abrupt timing of Walensky’s decision also smacked of politics to Biden’s antagonists, who noted that the president benefited from the announcement during a difficult week when many Americans queued up in gas lines, tensions in Israel flared and markets roiled amid inflation fears.”

Even this, however, comes with its own muddied waters. According to Politico, the president was not informed about the new rules until scant hours before the announcement. This was an abrupt departure from procedure for Biden, who reportedly rolls like a dog in the details of an issue for a long time before making a decision. When his staff is slow or inept with the delivery of those details, Biden has been reportedly quick to anger. One wonders how he reacted to his own CDC pulling what amounted to a surprise announcement of the single most important policy decision of his presidency. I can see Biden doing a solid R. Lee Ermey imitation from Full Metal Jacket: “Can I be in charge for a little while? Well thank you very much.” So much for Sleepy Joe.

The consternation over these new rules is palpable. Vaccinated folks can unmask, which is super, great, but who is vaccinated and who isn’t? We’re doing the honor system now? Will vaccinated people eventually have to wear a scarlet “V” to announce their status? Vax cards? Vaxxports? If unvaccinated people act in bad faith and go maskless, doesn’t it invite the kind of scenario that just struck the New York Yankees, who had eight vaccinated players recently test positive? Also, India and Brazil are still on fire with virus variants reaving people by the thousands. How is this anything other than a dangerously unformed premature decision?

Parents with young children are also in search of some insight on the matter. There are nearly 50 million children under 12 in the U.S., all of them unvaccinated. Are they safe around unvaccinated people who are pretending to be vaccinated? Are we to expect small children wear their masks when their vaccinated parents or caregivers don’t? Anyone with 12 seconds of toddler experience knows that’s a non-starter from the jump.

Hundreds of epidemiologists had fully expected the prior mask mandates to remain in place for at least another year. “I think the CDC meant to say something really good, which is these vaccines are really protective,” medical analyst Dr. Leana Wen told CNN on Sunday. “The thing is though, there were unintended consequences of their actions. We’ve seen governors and mayors and business owners drop mask mandates, and as a result of that we’ve now made life much less safe for people who are unvaccinated, for immuno-compromised individuals and for young children who cannot yet be vaccinated.”

It is to be hoped that some clarity will be brought to this situation with haste. “I would imagine within a period of just a couple of weeks, you’re going to start to see significant clarification of some of the actually understandable and reasonable questions that people are asking,” Anthony Fauci told Face the Nation over the weekend.

Good. In the meantime, let your common sense be your guide. Get vaccinated if you can, as soon as you can, and tell your friends. Wear your mask until this confusion passes. Your face smells just fine.

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