Biden Administration Remains Cautious About Easing Masking

The White House has been quietly meeting with outside health experts to plan a pandemic exit strategy and a transition to a “new normal,” but the behind-the-scenes effort is crashing into a very public reality: a string of blue-state governors have gotten ahead of President Biden by suddenly abandoning their mask mandates.

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The governors’ moves — Gov. Kathy Hochul of New York said Wednesday she is dropping a statewide mask or vaccine mandate — step up the pressure on the Biden administration, and in particular on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to offer guidance to the states on mask wearing and other mitigation measures.

So far, the administration has been reluctant to do so. Jeff Zients, Mr. Biden’s coronavirus response coordinator, said at a news briefing Wednesday that fighting the Omicron surge remains Mr. Biden’s top priority.

“We are working on that guidance; we are working on following the trends for the moment,” the C.D.C.’s director, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, said at the briefing. But she cautioned, “Our hospitalizations are still high, our death rates are still high. so as we work toward that and as we are encouraged by the current trends, we are not there yet.”

The meetings with outside experts are aimed at drafting an updated pandemic playbook that will address, in part, how to relax mitigation measures like mask wearing, while planning for the possibility that another new variant can emerge. Mr. Zients referenced the sessions on Wednesday, but did not offer details” except to say they were focused on “steps we should be taking to keep the country moving forward.”

Mr. Biden has already been signaling that he is looking past the pandemic. In remarks, at a news conference in January, he said that the nation is “moving toward a time when Covid-19 won’t disrupt our daily life, when Covid-19 won’t be a crisis, but something to protect against.” But the president also said then that, “we’re not there yet.”

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