“The Biden administration is already going in the wrong direction,” said Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) On Friday. “The continued overreach of the federal government will not end the Covid-19 pandemic or put food on the table.”
And within a few days it became clearer that opponents would not only complain about the mask mandate, but would also actively fight against it.
“Definitely expect lawsuits from our state, private lawsuits,” Brendan Steinhauser, a Texas-based GOP strategist and former campaign manager, told Senator John Cornyn, R-Texas.
The recoil against Biden’s mask mandate is the earliest and most visceral sign to date that it will be almost impossible to reach consensus in a still very divided DC. And it raises questions about how willing the new administration is to crush what remains of a deadly pandemic, with the expectation of 100,000 more deaths in the next month and widespread vaccination months away.
According to the Implementing Ordinance, Biden instructs departments and agencies in his area of responsibility to “immediately take measures to oblige people in federal buildings or federal states, federal employees on duty or on site and federal companies working on site to wear a mask and to keep a physical distance” the White House.
However, the order also requires masks for various forms of public transport, including trains, planes, and intercity buses. And that very provision, say attorneys who have challenged mask mandates in the past, may be the most susceptible to legal challenge.
While Republicans are warning of possible overreach, it doesn’t seem that the White House will play a direct role in punishing those who violate the mask mandate. A White House official said the agencies will be tasked with enforcing the order as they see fit. National parks must also adhere to the Mask Ordinance, but the White House says officials overseeing the parks can create their own guidelines for indoor and outdoor areas on their properties.
At least one attorney who has led a lawsuit against masked mandates said the language in Biden’s order was strictly written, possibly in anticipation of legal challenges.
“In the executive summary I’ve reviewed, I see indications of careful consideration and plans to anticipate challenges,” said Seldon Childers, a Florida attorney who has a pending case challenging mask mandates. “I think they’ll likely get their way through government regulations.”
Scientists and epidemiologists say wearing masks is a crucial tool in slowing the spread of Covid. And it was no surprise that Biden made the mandate one of his first acts. Throughout the campaign, he had pledged to take action on the first day of his presidency.
However, the pushback was visceral. A month ago Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas) reprimanded Biden’s idea of a mask mandate on Twitter. “On the first day,” he said, “I’ll tell you to kiss my ass.”
And after the mandate was formally inaugurated, Republicans went after Bden and called him a hypocrite for not wearing a mask at the Lincoln Memorial hours after the mandate was signed.
“Typical Democrat – rules for you, not for me,” tweeted former Trump campaign official Marc Lotter.
Former George W. Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer tweeted a New York Post story titled “President Biden takes off a mask at the Lincoln Memorial hours after the mandate.”
In a press conference Thursday, a Fox News reporter put White House press secretary Jen Psaki on whether Biden was practicing what he was preaching.
“We, as you know here, are taking a number of precautions regarding Covid in terms of testing, social distancing, and wearing masks like we do every day,” said Psaki.
Against the scientific consensus, Florida State Representative Anthony Sabatini, who has filed more than a dozen local lawsuits to combat mask mandates in counties across the state, challenged the notion that masks actually reduce the spread of the virus. He pointed to California, where compliance is high, even though Covid-19 cases have soared. He also insisted that there was no practical reason for this, as most federal properties already need masks and consider Biden’s move to be political.
“I think he’s the guy who’s all about looks, it’s not really about results,” said Sabatini. “He wants to convey his message that he is interested. He cares more about looking like he’s doing something. ”
Biden consultants don’t necessarily deny the idea that the point of the order isn’t the mandate itself, but the look and the message it sends. They say Biden felt it was important for Americans to hear a clear message about the benefits of wearing masks – a White House official said there was “no single standard” under Donald Trump. But the edict is also part of what they termed an all-hands-on-deck effort to contain the spread of the virus at a time Biden has repeatedly warned it would be a “dark winter”. And the more the wearing of masks is respected, the more the country has the opportunity to contain the spread of the virus.
Mark Scott and Tina Nguyen contributed to this report.