President Biden will recommit the U.S. to the World Health Organization, take a bigger federal role in the vaccine rollout, and mandate masks where he can as he assumes responsibility for the pandemic response instead of carping about now-former President Donald Trump from the sidelines.
The new administration says wrangling the once-in-a-century pandemic will be its top task, with Mr. Biden setting a 100-day test for his team. He wants Americans to wear masks for at least that period but mandated their use on federal property in his first executive action on Wednesday.
“It’s requiring, as I said all along, where I have authority, mandating masks be worn, social distancing be kept on federal property and interstate commerce, etc.,” Mr. Biden said from the Oval Office.
The real-life impact of Mr. Biden’s order should be uniform compliance with guidance the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued in April, at least within federal agencies.
Mr. Trump formally urged people to wear masks but resisted mandates and undermined his own advice by mocking some wearers as “politically correct.” Masks were a rare sight in the Trump White House, while federal workers confronted a patchwork of agency rules when they returned from telework this past year. The federal Office of Personnel Management’s guidelines during his administration said that “although face coverings are recommended by CDC guidelines, they are not required at OPM facilities.”
Hoping to set an example, Mr. Biden, Vice President Kamala D. Harris and their family members wore masks as they attended Mass at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in downtown D.C. to start their day. Groups were also spaced out in the pews. The outdoor inauguration featured far fewer people than usual and plenty of masks, though dignitaries got much closer than 6 feet as they hobnobbed.
Reporters noted changes at the White House, including a Plexiglas partition where a guard sits near the entrance to the West Wing.
Mr. Biden’s order directs executive departments and agencies to require compliance with CDC rules on mask-wearing among federal employees, contractors and all persons within federal buildings or on federal lands.
Heads of agencies will be allowed to make case-by-case exceptions, if needed, so long as they devise “alternative safeguards,” such as extra distancing or reconfiguring workspaces.
The order, which does not outline any penalties for flouting the mandate, defines federal buildings and federal lands as those that are under the control of the executive branch of government.
It also says the director of OPM and the administration of the General Services Administration should work with Congress and the Supreme Court to find ways to promote mask-wearing and physical distancing.
It’s unclear if the order on interstate transportation will do much more than place a federal imprimatur on existing practices. Major airlines have required masks for months, resulting in angry standoffs with passengers who refuse and reports of customers nursing beverages to get around exemptions for eating and drinking. Some people who refused masks were banned from flying with airlines again.
Amtrak policy, meanwhile, “requires all customers and employees wear a face mask or covering that fully covers the entire mouth and nose, fits snugly against the side of the face, and secures under the chin at all times while onboard and in stations unless actively eating or drinking.”
Mr. Biden is highlighting COVID-19 as the death toll exceeds a once-unfathomable 400,000. An average of 3,000 people are dying per day, while case counts and hospitalizations are decreasing but remain dangerously high. Fast-spreading variants could reverse recent gains, though Mr. Trump, speaking at Joint Base Andrews on Wednesday morning, argued vaccines will force COVID-19 case counts to “really skyrocket downward.”
Some Biden administration efforts will be a continuation of Trump-era policies, such as immediately expanding vaccine access to those 65 and older. Mr. Biden is inheriting two approved vaccines and a few more in advanced testing.
Mr. Trump’s administration shipped vaccines to the states but left the rest up to governors. Mr. Biden says he will stake out a bigger federal role in the rollout, promising to use the Federal Emergency Management Agency to set up 100 vaccine sites across the country in his first month.
Mr. Biden hasn’t explained how and where FEMA will operate, but Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is rejecting the idea, saying “FEMA camps” will add a level of bureaucracy to the effort.
“I can tell you, that’s not necessary in Florida. All we need is more vaccine,” said Mr. DeSantis, a Republican and Trump ally, joining the chorus of states that say their fear is running out of doses.
Also Wednesday, Mr. Biden said he will reverse Mr. Trump’s plans to withdraw the U.S. from the WHO, the U.N.’s public health arm. He has tasked Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, with addressing WHO’s executive board on Thursday.
Mr. Trump started the pullout last year, saying the organization was too deferential to China in probing the coronavirus and the communist government’s secretive response in the early going. He said that deference put the rest of the world at a disadvantage even as Americans extended an outsized share of funding to the organization.
A panel of experts commissioned by the WHO on Tuesday criticized the organization and China, as well as other countries, for not moving quickly enough to stem the initial outbreak of the coronavirus.
Many Democrats said it would be better to seek changes than withdraw from the WHO, saying it would leave a vacuum for China and others to fill.
House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, Louisiana Republican, blasted Mr. Biden’s move and said sticking with the WHO without significant changes in hand is foolish.
Also Wednesday, Mr. Biden said he is creating a COVID-19 coordinator who will orchestrate the federal response, including procurement of equipment, tests and vaccines, and will restore the Directorate for Global Health Security and Biodefense, a part of the White House National Security Council that was dissolved midway through Mr. Trump’s term.