Psaki says cities should mandate masks indoors if COVID rates remain high

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Friday that cities should implement indoor mask mandates where the level of COVID-19 community transmission is “high” or “substantial” as defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as more confirmed cases of the Omicron variant are reported across the US.

During the White House press briefing, Psaki called on the Wall Street Journal’s Sabrina Siddiqui, who pointed out that cities like New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco require proof of vaccination to access bars, indoor dining and other businesses.

“Given the new variant, does the administration believe that more cities and localities should enact similar proof of vaccination requirements?” she asked. 

“They may decide to do that,” Psaki said. “Our approach and our view has always been that’s up to cities and localities. It is not, as you know, that CDC guidance has changed on this front. There’s a lot we don’t know about the variant. We’re learning more every single day. But again, we continue to believe that’s up to states and localities and what they need to do to protect people in their community.” 

Cities such as New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco require proof of vaccination to access certain indoor establishments.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
White House press secretary Jen Psaki
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said it’s up to cities to decide if mask mandates make sense for them.
AP Photo/Evan Vucci

In a follow-up, Siddiqui asked about cities that have rescinded indoor mask mandates despite being in high-transmission areas as defined by the CDC.

“Do you think cities like DC and New York, which are still in substantial or high transmission [areas] should abide by the CDC guidelines?” she asked.

“Of course they should, every city should,” said Psaki, later adding: “Our objective is not for people to be scared. That is not what we’re trying to do here. But certainly you’re seeing that the impact of how this has been communicated about is being felt in communities. People are taking steps to protect themselves.”

The CDC defines “substantial” or “high” transmission of COVID-19 as at least 50 new cases per 100,000 people over a seven-day period. Approximately 85 percent of US counties meet that threshold.

New York State Attorney General Letitia James
New York Attorney General Letitia James said Gov. Hochul should issue a statewide mask mandate after the Omicron variant was detected in New York.
REUTERS/Joy Malone

The agency recommends mask-wearing in public indoor spaces regardless of vaccination status in areas of “substantial” or “high” transmission. Cities located in such areas include New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington DC, Chicago, Detroit, Minneapolis, Denver and Los Angeles.

On Thursday, New York state Attorney General and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Letitia James called on Gov. Kathy Hochul to issue a statewide mask mandate after five cases of the Omicron variant were detected in the state.

So far, the Omicron variant has been detected in at least nine states, including California, New York, Colorado, Minnesota, Hawaii, Nebraska, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Missouri.

President Biden announced a “winter plan” Thursday that included a requirement for all air travelers to the US to test negative for the virus within one day of their flight, regardless of nationality for vaccination status.

On Friday, Biden affirmed that domestic travelers will not be met with similar requirements “at this time.” 

President Joe Biden
President Biden released his “winter plan” to deal with COVID-19 and the Omicron variant on Dec. 2, 2021.
AP Photo/Evan Vucci

“The measure that I announced yesterday are — we believe are — sufficiently to deal with the proper medical precautions to deal with the spread of this new variant,” he told reporters after delivering remarks on the November jobs report. “We are doing — as you know, at NIH as well as among manufacturers — a lot of research to see the extent of how quickly it spreads, how deadly it is, etc. etc. But we do require for travel, we’re going to continue to require people to have masks on, masks on. And in public places and federal buildings.

“So, but I don’t at this point, because I mean, I think I know a fair amount about this issue. But I’m not a scientist,” Biden continued. “So I continue to rely on the scientists and asking them whether or not we have to move beyond what we did yesterday. Right now, they’re saying no.” 

The Omicron variant was first detected in South Africa last week, forcing the US to impose travel restrictions on eight southern African countries as a result. Scientists believe the variant may be more contagious, but it is not clear whether it is more dangerous.

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