Biden Says Americans Should Decide for Themselves About Wearing Masks

On Tuesday, Kathryn Kimball Mizelle, a Trump-appointed federal judge deemed “not qualified” by the American Bar Association, struck down the national mask mandates for airplanes and public transportation. On Wednesday, President Biden reacted with the executive equivalent of a gigantic shrug.

The decision to wear a mask on public transit, Biden told reporters during a trip to New Hampshire, is “up to them.”

Press Secretary Jen Psaki offered a slightly more robust response to one of the administration’s defining policies getting tossed out by a 35-year-old judge whose only trial experience came during an internship. “Public health decisions shouldn’t be made by the courts, they should be made by public health experts,” Psaki told reporters on the way to New Hampshire. “We obviously feel confident in our authorities here given that we put the mask mandate in place and asked for 15 additional days to evaluate data based on public health information.”

Psaki said on Monday that the Justice Department will review Mizelle’s ruling, and on Tuesday told reporters that an appeal is still possible. Seeing as Mizelle wrote in her decision that “wearing a mask cleans nothing,” you would think fighting this one in court would be an easy call for the Biden administration. The other possibility is that the Biden administration, like most of the country’s institutions and a good amount of its citizens, has simply given up. Covid-19 has been our problem all along. The government is done helping. 

Framing the pandemic as a crisis of personal responsibility has always been a politically expedient way of dealing with it. Republicans have used it to embolden narratives of individual liberties, framing the response to — and even the belief in — the disease and its various treatments or vaccines as a personal choice. Biden’s administration at least made some efforts to assume institutional responsibility for tackling the virus, but has been signaling for weeks that it was largely finished providing structural solutions to the pandemic’s problems. The Child Tax Credit died on the vine, stimulus payments shrank inexorably, and even federal funding for vaccines and testing has been hard to come by.

This trend won’t change even if the administration successfully challenges Mizelle’s ruling and reinstates a mandate for passengers traveling in crowded metal tubes. This should be the bare minimum of a functioning government’s pandemic response, but it doesn’t appear as if Biden thinks it’s even worth fighting for.

As of Tuesday, 989,000 Americans have died from complications stemming from Covid-19.