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Biden is soon facing the biggest test of his presidency: will he bring back the masks?

President Joe Biden.Andrew Harnik/Associated Press

In the coming weeks, the Biden administration faces probably the toughest decision yet of the presidency, presenting a possibly unexpected test of his COVID-19 response just weeks after celebrating America’s progress against the virus over Fourth of July weekend.

The Washington Post reported on Thursday that there is talk in the White House about whether the federal government should ask vaccinated people to wear masks when indoors around unvaccinated people.

Where once members of the Biden administration were making a show of removing their masks and declaring the coronavirus was receding in America, now the case counts are climbing again.


In June, for example, there were around 11,000 new COVID-19 cases a day. Now, in mid-July, there are about 40,000. In Massachusetts, the daily case counts have risen to levels that have not been seen since mid-May.

There are two reasons for this. First, in many places, most of those getting sick, being hospitalized, and dying are unvaccinated. Second, the Delta variant of the coronavirus has been found, so far, to be one of the most highly transmissible versions yet.

Some localities are not waiting for guidance from the federal government. Officials in Cambridge said they are once again “urging” those in the city to wear masks, whether they are vaccinated or not. Meanwhile, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker told reporters he doesn’t see any changes to the status quo in terms of new COVID guidance from the state.

Among Biden officials, the question is quickly being asked what could be done to stem this surge before it spreads even further. For the most part, the White House has said that they will leave any public guidance up to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It was, after all, something of a campaign promise that Biden will leave decisions like these up to the experts. For the moment, the CDC has said vaccinated people do not need to wear a mask in public.


If this changes, however, it is easy to see how that would have a huge impact on American life, markets, and politics.

Southern California is emerging as a test case for how this might work nationwide. Hoping to curb a surge in the amount of COVID cases there, Los Angeles County reinstalled a mask mandate on Sunday. The response from the public has been largely negative. Conservative small-town officials say it is government overreach. Some officials have said they have no plans to enforce the mandate. The mayor in liberal Beverly Hills says the move was “justifiable” but wonders if there is a better way to address rising cases. He also worries about the impact on restaurants and small businesses.

On Monday, the stock market had its single worst day since last October, in what many analysts said was a direct response to the rise of the delta variant.

In many ways, the future could be a lose-lose situation for Biden politically. For much of his presidency, Biden, oddly, has not been fueling partisan opposition. Republicans are much more focused on culture wars like Critical Race Theory or the 2020 election results than they are with Biden’s handling of COVID or even the burning issue of the day: a pair of enormous infrastructure bills.

This has helped Biden enjoy solid approval ratings, something that Democrats are relying on in the 2022 midterm elections.


But if Biden, even through the CDC, took strong action on, say, reversing its mask guidance, it would put him front and center in American life. While it is clear it would draw ire from the political right, what is unclear is whether people would even heed the guidance in a way that could stem the tide of hospitalizations and death among the unvaccinated.

On the other hand, if the administration does take a hands-off approach, and the fall brings a full-blown COVID crisis, this time it is entirely under Biden’s watch.

No doubt the Biden administration will try to find some middle ground here. But, here is the thing: COVID, the disease, isn’t engaged in a political messaging war.

James Pindell can be reached at james.pindell@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell and on Instagram @jameswpindell.