What would a national mask mandate look like under President Biden?

national mask mandate joe biden
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When President-elect Joe Biden becomes President Biden on Jan. 20, 2021, something approaching a national mask mandate could soon follow. Biden has modeled mask-wearing throughout his campaign, and on Nov. 9, he made a statement reinforcing his belief in masks as a way to mitigate the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

“It’s time to end the politicization of basic, responsible public health steps like mask-wearing and social distancing,” Biden said, according to Vox. “The single most effective thing we can do to stop the spread of COVID: Wear a mask.” That same day, Biden tweeted, “I won’t be president until January 20, but my message to everyone is this: Wear a mask.”

But not only would a national mask mandate be more of a national mask suggestion, policy analysts have determined that it would only be as national as cooperating local and state health officials would make it.

In exploring the issue, Vox noted, “With limited federal powers at his disposal, Biden will have to convince everyone from state and local governments down to individual Americans that masks are one of the best and easiest ways to stop the spread of the coronavirus.”

Thirty-seven states, plus the District of Columbia, have adopted some form of mask mandate, with Wyoming becoming the latest in mid-December. Other states, however, are holding out on issuing official mask policy, and Mississippi rescinded its mask mandate at the end of October. Gov. Tate Reeves has, however, increased the number of counties still requiring masks from nine to 16 on Oct. 26, WAPT reported.

USA Today pointed out, “On the campaign trail, Biden said he wouldn’t—and couldn’t—issue a national mandate that everyone must wear a mask or face a fine.” His advisers also say he’s not interested in mandating a national lockdown.

“A national mandate is not possible because public health powers belong to the states, not the federal government,” Lawrence Gostin, director of Georgetown University’s O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law, told USA Today. “The federal government couldn’t implement its own mask mandates, nor could it force the states to do it.”

Biden would have to contact governors and mayors individually and persuade them—though, of course, a number of those leaders have already taken the initiative to institute mask guidelines in response to the pandemic.

The Biden-Harris transition team website notes the new administration plans to “implement mask mandates nationwide by working with governors and mayors and by asking the American people to do what they do best: Step up in a time of crisis.”

Yale University law professor Harold Koh clarified that the national mask mandate would really be a “patchwork of overlapping mandates and normative policies.”

Still, there are steps a Biden administration could take that the Trump administration hasn’t, such as requiring masks on federal lands, in federal buildings, and for interstate transportation. It could also require states to adhere to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines as a condition to qualify for certain federal funds.

And even when people get vaccinated, they’re still going to have to wear masks. “A lot of people are thinking that once they get vaccinated, they’re not going to have to wear masks anymore,” Michal Tal, an immunologist at Stanford University, told the New York Times. “It’s really going to be critical for them to know if they have to keep wearing masks, because they could still be contagious.”

Read more on coronavirus face coverings:

Sources: Vox, WAPT, USA Today

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