(CNN)Americans stripped off their masks Thursday as the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention made the sudden announcement that vaccinated people no longer need to wear them indoors or outdoors. It was a great moment of liberation after a year of intense stress and fear, but also one of trepidation for many as the policy created a whole new set of complex questions for parents, employers, business owners and the millions of Americans who are still hesitant to get shots.
Biden administration officials greeted the news with euphoria in Washington. In the White House, the President took off his mask during a meeting with Sen. Shelley Moore Capito and other senators, the West Virginia Republican said. The President’s aides, who had been wearing masks as late as Thursday morning, put them away. Senators on Capitol Hill uncovered their faces. “Free at last,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said.
The CDC’s decision to change the guidance for fully vaccinated people — which was a surprise even to White House officials informed late Wednesday — marks a huge political success for Biden early in his term and a key turning point on the road to eradicating the pandemic, which is perhaps the most important goal of his presidency. Yet in the coming days, the onus will be on officials — none more so than the President himself — to manage and demonstrate the transition between the CDC’s pronouncement and its impact on the lives of millions of Americans.
“I think it’s a great milestone, a great day,” Biden said in the White House Rose Garden, making a point to smile and tell others to do so after months of concealing their faces to keep one another safe. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told CNN’s Jake Tapper that the announcement did not mean that the pandemic was over in the US but said that the nation had just taken one step closer to normal life.
“Being able to go around without a mask, indoors as well as outdoors, is really a big step in that direction,” Fauci said. “I wouldn’t want to declare victory prematurely, but I’m saying this is clearly a step in the direction that we want to go.”
Still, the CDC’s decision immediately raised a flurry of questions and consequences, including a debate over whether an agency often criticized for being too cautious had suddenly gone too far.
There were already key points of confusion and conflicting policies that could raise doubt in the minds of some Americans about the science of unmasking at this point when about 46% percent of Americans who are 18 and older are fully vaccinated, according to data published by the CDC.
The equivocation was evident Thursday in the dissonant policies even within different government agencies and entities in Washington. The White House told vaccinated staffers that they could take off their masks at work. But when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was asked whether she planned to change the rules and allow members to unmask on the floor of the House of Representatives, the California Democrat replied: “No,” then asked rhetorically: “Are they all vaccinated?”
During school pickup Thursday throughout the country, many parents still wore their masks after the announcement as unvaccinated children streamed from the doors — raising questions about what the new policies will mean at a time when vaccines are not approved for younger children. Parents are also left struggling to explain why there are now different rules for adults and kids without creating
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