Timing and the Mask Mandate

The rollout could have been smoother.

President Joe Biden takes his mask off to deliver remarks on COVID-19 and the economy, Thursday, July 29, 2021, in the East Room of the White House. (Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz)
Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz

Given the CDC’s announcement Friday afternoon that most Americans no longer needed to wear a mask to protect against COVID and the almost-immediate compliance by local authorities, I was somewhat surprised that the mandate remained in effect for federal employees yesterday. My consternation grew as the White House and Congress announced early in the day that they would no longer require masking for their own employees but no wider announcement came.

While no official word has come as of this writing, it is apparently coming, Reuters reports:

The White House told federal agencies late on Monday they can drop COVID-19 requirements that employees and visitors wear masks in federal buildings in much of the country, according to a document seen by Reuters.

The White House-led Safer Federal Workforce Task Force said in new guidance that the mask requirement could be ended by federal facilities in counties with low or medium COVID-19 community levels, regardless of vaccination status. About 70% of U.S. counties covering 72% of the U.S. population are listed as having low or medium levels.

The White House directed agencies to revise federal employee masking and testing rules no later than March 4, according to the previously unreported document. The new guidance covers about 3.5 million employees at federal agencies.

In counties with low community levels, federal agencies also do not need to regularly screen unvaccinated employees for COVID-19, the guidance says.


When “a locality imposes more protective pandemic-related safety requirements, those requirements should be followed in federal facilities within that locality,” the guidance added.

Earlier on Monday, the White House said effective Tuesday it is lifting the requirement that fully vaccinated individuals wear masks on the White House campus, but it added that testing, providing vaccination information, and other COVID-19 protocols remain in place.

The new guidance says agencies should review U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) community levels weekly to determine any changes that need to be made to workplace safety protocols.

Granting that the logistical challenges are different, it strikes me as poor form for the political leadership to exempt themselves from a requirement that they themselves imposed on their subordinates before lifting said requirement. While it’s easier to declare the capital city a no-mask zone than it is to issue policy for agencies spread throughout the globe, it’s really not that hard to look up a zip code on the CDC’s website. Further, if the President is persuaded that his agency heads need a week to get orders in place, then the White House should wait until then to unmask.

Beyond that, I continue to find it odd that the CDC issues these pronouncements—often signaling rather huge policy swings—seemingly without prior coordination with the White House and state authorities. While that may help insulate them from charges of politicizing the decisions, it leaves governing officials scrambling to react. A more orderly roll-out of these policies would allow more smooth transition.

Speaking of politicization, the coincidence that this comes just in time for the State of the Union address is unfortunate. My guess is that, to the extent there was a non-data-based timing decision, it had to do with the ending of February rather than any political event. But a maskless Biden addressing a maskless Congress definitely has different connotations.

In somewhat related news: My kids were positively gleeful at being able to go to school without a mask on for the first time in almost two years this morning.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Cheryl Rofer says:

    Don’t whine, James.

  2. DK says:

    Granting that the logistical challenges are different

    That’s really the whole entire article. My goodness, must a celebratory moment be refocused into complaining? Must Biden’s actions always be framed with negativity?

    A 3-day masking difference is our protest, while Ukrainians huddle in their basements. Good grief.

    I wish President and Dr. Biden a long and happy retirement, whenever it comes. This ungrateful country deserves a president who whines on Twitter all day.

  3. James Joyner says:

    @DK: It’s a basic tenet of leadership that, to the extent possible, those in charge should set the example and be first in line for hardships and last in line for rewards. In military circles, it’s expressed as “Leaders eat last.”

  4. becca says:

    My school age grand girl still chooses to wear her mask in class, as do her friends. Maybe because she about lost her paternal relatives to the virus. They were all unvaxed, all got COVID, and now several are long haulers. If she has any issues with COVID trauma, we can lay that at the feet of the covidiots in her life. Her once active grandpa now almost an
    invalid and a thirteen year old aunt (I told you grandpa was active) who hasn’t smelled or tasted anything in a year. Lifting mask mandates will not change a thing in her (or my own) life and people just constantly whining about a minor inconvenience should go out in the garden and eat worms.

  5. DK says:

    @James Joyner: Wearing masks for part of the day for three days more is not a “hardship.”

    What do they call crybabies in military circles? Americans need to grow up and get a grip.

  6. James Joyner says:

    @DK: And yet the White House immediately exempted itself from the mandate. Why do you think that is?

  7. Kathy says:

    It’s a really good thing a weapon that puts masks on every one within range is an impossibility. Otherwise America could be brought to its knees with such weapons.

  8. grumpy realist says:

    It takes a longer time for official orders to cascade through the government bureaucracy than the White House. That’s all this amounts to.

    I also suspect that the high amount of teleworking is also one reason: there’s no reason for the haste.

  9. inhumans99 says:

    James, I will enjoy hearing about Fox news complaining that the only reason President Biden lifted the mandate is because of the optics of the SOTU. I would be cackling with glee if Republicans all of a sudden decided to try and made President Biden look bad if they all decide to show up at the SOTU masked up so they can go on Fox and complain that they were required to wear a mask yet President Biden felt he was above the rules and did not, or something to that effect. We both now the children that comprise the GOP today will not do that.

    Honestly, DK is kind-of right….all that is left now is residual whining from folks (both ordinary Joe’s and GOP politicians) who want to continue to pitch a fit that when they said “Jum…I mean no mask mandate now!” around 8-12+ months back to President Biden that he did not simply say How High?

    Be glad your kids get some relief from Mask wearing, along with the rest of you and your family and friends. My sister is an educator, and I suspect that she might be slightly relieved that she does not have to teach wearing a mask all day long.

    It really does make look folks look childish to throw a tantrum by loudly complaining that President Biden should have done this a year or two back, honestly, even the MAGA folks deep down know that they are better served by moving on to complaining about other things the deep liberal state wants to impose on them instead of trying to continue to figure out a way to make President Biden look bad due to the timing of when he eliminated the mask mandates.

  10. James Joyner says:

    @inhumans99: The post is only tangentially about Biden and mostly about the strange lack of coordination when CDC makes these announcements. States and federal agencies should have had enough advance warning to be prepared to implement the policy, rather than having to scramble to react to an announcement made late on a Friday afternoon.

    As to Biden, I’ve largely applauded his leadership of the COVID crisis, in contrast to the absolutely horrid job his predecessor did. But I do think it’s poor optics for the Chief Executive to declare his workplace a mask-free zone while 3.5 million employees are required to mask under his orders.

  11. Gustopher says:

    I am sorry we were unable to shrug and give up on public health measures in a more organized manner. I can only hope that you have the support of family and friends in this difficult and trying time.

  12. gVOR08 says:

    In a similar context a few weeks ago I asked if there’s a Latin name for the fallacy of perfection. On digging a little I find there is the Nirvana Fallacy, named by an economist in the late 60s.

    the informal fallacy of comparing actual things with unrealistic, idealized alternatives. It can also refer to the tendency to assume there is a perfect solution to a particular problem. A closely related concept is the “perfect solution fallacy.”

  13. James Joyner says:

    @Gustopher: The United States is actually behind most of the West in ending mask mandates.

    @gVOR08: I don’t think that asking the leading public health agency in the country to coordinate with the White House and state governors a few days ahead of major policy announcements is asking for perfection. It seems like common sense.

  14. Stormy Dragon says:

    I just remember when about this time last year everyone stopped masking as the winter surge waned and it resulted in another surge in April/May.

  15. James Joyner says:

    @Stormy Dragon: This time last year, CDC was still suggesting masking for everybody in most public settings but were about to slowly roll out new guidelines for the fully vaccinated.

    On March 8, they said that vaccinated individuals should feel safe going maskless in small, private settings with other vaccinated individuals.

    On April 27, they extended that to outdoor activities.

    On May 13, they stated that those of us who were vaccinated could stop masking in most instances.

    On July 27, the fast spread of Delta caused them to snap back to recommending masking in indoor public spaces.

    They finally rolled that back last Friday, going back to the green light — and seemingly for everybody, whether vaccinated or not. Which I think makes little sense but is practical: unless you have vaccine passports and an army of checkers, the unvaxxed are going to free-ride.

    We’ll see how it goes, I guess, but people the world over are unmasking at this point. We’ll see if they put them back on if and when the next wave hits.

  16. Stormy Dragon says:

    @James Joyner:

    In warning to U.S., COVID rates soar after Denmark lifts all restrictions

    At the beginning of February, Denmark became the first major country to lift the last of its COVID-19 restrictions and effectively declare its part in the pandemic over.

    Since then, however, Denmark has continued to record more COVID-19 cases per capita than nearly anywhere else in the world, and both COVID hospitalizations and deaths have shot up by about a third.

    “Not looking good in Denmark,” Dr. Eric Topol, founder and director of the Scripps Translational Institute, tweeted Sunday, sharing several charts that terminated in near-vertical upward lines. “Deaths are now 67% of peak, with a steep ascent.”

  17. Kathy says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    Better to wear a mask and not need it, than to need it and not wear it.

  18. Kathy says:

    And here we go.

    COVID transmission from deer to human.

    It seems closer to the original trump strain than latter variants, meaning the vaccines should deal with it well. But the problem is now we have a wild animal reservoir, where the virus will mutate, and can later be picked up by some hiker or hunter and we get COVID 25 or 27 or who knows.

  19. Gustopher says:

    @Kathy: who are these people who are hanging out with deer in enclosed, poorly ventilated spaces? It sounds like the Far Side where the deer stand on their hind legs, live in houses, and have sofas and chairs.