Republican lawmakers questioned the timing of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s decision to ease indoor mask requirements on Thursday as the Biden administration contends with crises on several fronts.
Biden faced intense pressure this week from lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle who called for decisive action amid escalating military clashes between Israel and Hamas, a ransomware attack that crippled the largest fuel supplier on the Eastern Seaboard, and concerns about inflation that weighed on the stock market.
The CDC’s announcement led some Republicans, including Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Ariz., to question what prompted the sudden shift in guidance.
"While the new mask guidance is encouraging, the CDC and my Far Radical Left colleagues only chose to do this to distract from the consequences of catastrophic policy decisions that have been heard around the world," said Biggs, chairman of the House Freedom Caucus. "Inflation is rising, the Middle East is in shambles, the working class can’t fill up their gas tanks, our border is being overrun and the Biden Administration’s leadership is nowhere to be found."
CDC Director Rochelle Walensky’s announcement marked a significant departure in recent guidance from the agency, which warned as recently as late March of "impending doom" as some states loosened restrictions. Biden personally addressed the decision in a speech from the Rose Garden, saying it marked a "great day" for America.
"Why today? The science hasn’t changed," Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., wrote on Twitter.
Biden’s speech provided more fodder for Republicans who have ripped the administration for limiting the president’s press availabilities and downplaying politically fraught debates such as the crisis at the southern border.
"I welcome the relaxed CDC guidance, but presidents need to walk and chew gum at the same time," said Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-Va., also a member of the Freedom Caucus. "The White House has not shown great vigor in handling our other immediate national challenges, such as the cyberattack on Colonial Pipeline. I think the American people recognize that fact despite the CDC announcement, which merely caught up to the science on vaccines."
The administration scrambled to respond this week after a Russian criminal hacker group’s ransomware attack brought the Colonial Pipeline’s operations to an effective halt. The breach prompted panic-buying of gasoline in multiple states and stoked fears of a fuel shortage until service was restored on Wednesday evening.
As recovery efforts were underway, administration officials were also tasked with efforts to de-escalate violent clashes between the Israeli military and Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip. Biden’s statement that Israel has "a right to defend itself" drew criticism from lawmakers within his own party, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-NY., accused Biden of taking "the side of occupation."
Biden’s call for $4 trillion in spending on infrastructure and other projects also faced a renewed challenge in the form of rising inflation. The surge exacerbated concerns among GOP lawmakers who have already argued Biden’s plan was not economically feasible.
The inflation fears, coupled with a disappointing April jobs report, sent the stock market tumbling in recent days.
"I can only imagine that the President has had a terrible week as more and more Americans are realizing that his radical agenda is failing them and the country," said McKinley Lewis, a spokesperson for Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla.
The eased mask requirements marked a win for the Biden administration, which has presented the ongoing vaccination campaign and response to the coronavirus pandemic as its core initiative.
Face coverings have proven divisive, with lawmakers in red states arguing that federal guidance trailed behind the science.
The CDC said fully vaccinated individuals should still wear masks in crowded settings such as certain forms of public transportation. Additionally, businesses can still require masks at their establishments.
Walensky, a Biden appointee, said the decision was driven by data and progress in the nation’s unprecedented vaccination campaign.
"We have all longed for this moment when we can get back to some sense of normalcy," Walensky said. "Based on the continuing downward trajectory of cases, the scientific data on the performance of our vaccines and our understanding of how the virus spreads, that moment has come for those who are fully vaccinated."