Biden, COVID and mask mandates are a timely test for the 2024 election. Here’s what’s at stake

WASHINGTON – A late-summer surge in new COVID cases has meant the return of face masks in some parts of the country, reigniting a political battle that quickly became the centerpiece of a broader fight over the response to the pandemic during the last two elections.

President Joe Biden is at the center of the storm. Again.

To mask or not to mask? That is the question.

Biden, who wore a face mask throughout the 2020 presidential campaign and was constantly mocked by Donald Trump for doing so, donned a black face mask at a White House Medal of Honor ceremony for a Vietnam War Army helicopter pilot on Tuesday. The day before the event, first lady Jill Biden tested positive for COVID.

Biden has tested negative three times since the first lady’s positive test and has no symptoms, the White House said. He will continue to undergo testing and wear a mask indoors when close to others, but no other change in White House protocols is planned.

At another event on Wednesday, Biden entered and left the White House State Dining Room with his mask in his hand, not over his face. He explained that he has tested negative, but has been told to keep wearing the face covering. “Don’t tell them I didn’t have it on when I walked in,” he joked.

The resurgence of face masks as a political issue comes at an inconvenient time for Biden, who is focused on rebuilding the country in the post-pandemic era. At the same time, Biden is preparing for next year’s reelection campaign. As local governments reinstate some rescinded masking policies, Biden’s approach to the issue will be watched closely as voters still suffering from COVID fatigue decide whether to grant him another four years in office.

Some Republicans, sensing a political advantage, already are taking a solid anti-masking stand.

“To every COVID tyrant who wants to take away our freedom, hear these words: We will not comply,” Trump, the leading contender for next year’s GOP presidential nomination, said in a video posted on the social media platform X, formerly Twitter.

But this new masking protocol is also taking place beyond the walls of the White House.

Are there be mask mandates again?

Several hospital systems in New York, including United Health Services, Auburn Community Hospital and Upstate Medical, have reinstated mandatory mask policies as a way to limit the spread of the virus amid the summer surge.

The healthcare company Kaiser Permanente put in place a mask mandate in August for staff, patients and visitors at its facilities in Santa Rosa, California.

In Atlanta, Morris Brown College announced in late August that it would require students and employees to wear face masks on campus for two weeks – a measure that was later lifted. Rosemary Hills Elementary School in Silver Spring, Maryland, reinstated a mask mandate for students and staff on Tuesday after three or more people in one class tested positive for COVID.

Lionsgate, the mass media and entertainment company, briefly required employees to wear masks on two floors of its five-story office building in Santa Monica, Calif., before rescinding the policy in late August.

At the White House, press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said the Biden administration would continue to work closely with public health and medical professionals to monitor the virus. The administration has not announced any plans to reinstate a mask mandate. Jean-Pierre stressed the U.S. is in its strongest position yet to fight COVID and the viruses responsible for most of fall and winter hospitalizations

Philip Landrigan, a physician and public health expert at Boston College, said there is no need for a national mask mandate right now.

“We’re certainly not where we were in 2020” in terms of COVID infections, said Landrigan, director of the college’s Program for Global Public Health and the Common Good. “COVID is certainly coming back, but it remains to be seen how much, so the first line of defense is still vaccinations.”

Whether someone should wear a mask “depends on where in the country you are, what’s going on in your city or town and where you’re going to be,” Landrigan said. “If a person is going to be going into a crowded place, that might be a good a good time to to wear a mask. If you’re out in the open air, I don’t think there’s any need to.”

What Republican lawmakers are saying about mask mandates

Though Biden hasn’t announced any plans to implement a federal mask mandate, some Republican lawmakers are still pushing back against the possibility of one amid the implementation of masking protocols in local hospitals and schools.

Sen. J.D. Vance, R-Ohio, introduced the “Freedom to Breathe” act on Tuesday that would prohibit a mask mandate for passengers of air carriers or public transit and in educational settings through Dec. 31, 2024. The act was co-sponsored by Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., Sen. Eric Schmitt, R-Mo., and Sen. Mike Braun, R-Ind.

“Multiple entities within our government, within the public health bureaucracy, there are local schools in the D.C. area now reimposing mask mandates,” Vance said in a statement. “This is coming back unless we stop it from happening.”

Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., told USA TODAY that if Biden does implement a federal mask mandate, it could be “risky” for him in the 2024 race.

“COVID mandates aren’t in the top five election issues right now but… it could come back up into the top three as something that motivates people to vote if he does this during an election year,” Massie said.

Massie, along with 16 of his colleagues, filed a lawsuit against the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last year seeking to end a federal mask mandate for individuals traveling on commercial airlines. The Biden administration ended the requirement in April of that year after a federal judge in Florida voided the mandate.

“I’m not against somebody wearing a mask for themselves if they want to,” Massie said, “but I just believe it shouldn’t be mandated.”

Rep. Ralph Norman, R-S.C., echoed Massie’s remarks and called mask mandates “ridiculous.”

Will a mask mandate affect Biden’s 2024 presidential bid?

No matter what Biden does, the COVID-19 pandemic and the steps taken by the states and federal government are “more than likely going to be part of next year’s presidential campaign,” said Kevin Wagner, a political science professor at Florida Atlantic University.

“The harder question is how much of the campaign is going to be about this issue, and right now public opinion polls do not show that it is one of the most important issues for voters,” Wagner said. “That could change if the circumstances change and there is greater government intervention. But, at this point, that does not appear likely.”

Right now, the top issue for voters is the economy, according to Matthew Schmidt, an associate professor of political science and national security at the University of New Haven. A recent Wall Street Journal poll conducted from Aug. 24 to Aug. 30 found that 59% of voters disapprove of Biden’s handling of the economy.

“This will overshadow COVID and nearly all other issues, absent a major event,” Schmidt said. “Besides, Biden’s COVID response is already a built-in factor. Those that dislike him for his policies won’t change if he changes his policies. Whatever he’d do, those voters will use it to justify the low opinion they have of him already.”

Even so, Biden is stuck dealing with COVID-19 as a chronic crisis, said David Niven, an associate professor at the school of public and international affairs at the University of Cincinnati.

“People have long since lost patience with COVID as a concept, much less as a sacrifice or as a set of rules,” he said. “There is very little the president can do at this point because Americans have simply lost interest in the story line.”

In any case, there doesn’t appear to be much support for new pandemic restrictions and implementing them could alienate voters, Wagner said.

“Nationally, the effects have been mixed, and there is a definite partisan lens on the perception of how the government performed and whether the steps taken went too far or were not enough,” Wagner said. “Should the pandemic become a major issue again, this could affect the political races in states as well as the presidential contest. But it is just too early to know.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Biden, COVID and mask mandates: A timely test for the 2024 election

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