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What a difference a vaccine makes (that, and CDC guidance saying vaccinated people can safely do just about anything mask-free). At the Biden White House, which remained a COVID-cautious bubble longer than many corners of the country, it’s like 2019 all over again, with large and largely mask-free events in the East Room both Thursday and Friday.
The White House is opening up as the rest of the country sorts through what the latest guidance means and how it applies to them. While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said fully vaccinated people can be indoors or outdoors without masks, the mask rules still apply in some settings.
Critics, including some health care professionals, worry broadly that without requiring proof of protection, the swing in guidance could disincentivize vaccinations. Others worry children who are too young to be vaccinated could be left exposed if people who aren’t vaccinated ditch their masks as well.
In the highly vaccinated bubble of the White House, though, the administration is embracing the guidance change.
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At a Medal of Honor ceremony for Korean War veteran Col. Ralph Puckett Jr., about 60 people were in the room. The 94-year-old Puckett stood without his walker as President Biden put the medal around his neck and moved in close to whisper in his ear.
Biden, who before the pandemic lingered on handshakes and was known as a close-talker, has seemingly returned to form, embracing mask-free freedom.
“Get the family up here, all of you, including the grandkids,” Biden said, as more than a dozen family members piled on stage for a photo around a seated Puckett. Biden and South Korean President Moon Jae-in got down on one knee on either side of him as Biden directed family members to make sure everyone was visible in the shot.
The scene was similar on Thursday, when 68 people were on-hand for a bill signing. Cabinet secretaries, senior aides and members of Congress milled about before the event, most without masks, putting arms around each other, laughing. It was a perfectly normal scene straight out of non-pandemic times and a stark contrast from the early days of the Biden administration.
For the first 113 days or so, at the Biden White House, lecterns were wiped down between speakers, social distancing and double masking were the norm. They were so serious about avoiding large gatherings, staff would count how many people were in the room for a meeting, and often they’d gather via Zoom from neighboring offices. This continued even as the vast majority of staff got vaccinated.
It all changed, rather suddenly, when the CDC announced last week that fully vaccinated people could eschew their masks. White House aides were told via email shortly after the announcement that they were no longer required to wear masks in the office. The mood was celebratory, with newly visible smiles all around.
Since then, a White House that had been criticized for being slow to model the benefits of fully vaccinated life moved fast to embrace it.
“I can confirm we are a warm and fuzzy crew and we like to hug around here, but we were waiting for that to be allowed by CDC guidelines, which we certainly abide by,” press secretary Jen Psaki said at Friday’s press briefing.
White House staff tweeted from mask-free meetings that would have been conducted virtually just weeks earlier.
Vaccinated members of the press corps also dropped their masks in televised briefings. Psaki said Friday that “having more events with more people” and “welcoming back a full briefing room very soon” would all be part of returning to a new normal as an increasing share of the population gets vaccinated and COVID case numbers fall.
The maskless images from the White House were jarring for some Americans watching from home (and commenting on social media). CDC Director Rochelle Walensky acknowledged that the transition will take time during a press briefing on Friday.
“When we released our guidelines … and the science said it was safe to do so, we also acknowledge that not everybody is going to feel like it’s time to rip off their masks,” she said.
Asked how the White House is tracking vaccinations among those who attend events at the White House or press briefings, Psaki said, “That’s not the role we’re going to play.” She said the guidance from the CDC was about how people can protect themselves, and vaccinated people are protected from COVID-19, no mask needed.
“The real question is how will people who are not yet vaccinated protect themselves?” Psaki said.