Washington Begins to Unmask, Following C.D.C. Guidance

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Politics|One by one, Washington begins to unmask.


Jill Biden, the first lady, visiting a school in Charleston, W.Va., accompanied by actress Jennifer Garner, right, who grew up in the state.
Credit...Oliver Contreras for The New York Times

Katie Rogers

May 13, 2021, 4:54 p.m. ET

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Jill Biden, the first lady, landed in West Virginia just as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said on Thursday that vaccinated Americans could, for the most part, remove their masks. So, just before she disembarked from her plane, she did.

After weeks of murky guidance from the C.D.C. on what vaccinated Americans can and can’t do, the sight of a maskless first lady went far to clear up confusion — at least in Charleston, where she visited a vaccine clinic for children set up inside a local high school.

“We feel naked!” Dr. Biden said to a group of junior Army officers who had gathered to greet her. “I didn’t mean it that way.”

It was a surreal and memorable moment that underscored in a very public way just how strange this past million or so months have been. Back in Washington, officials in the Biden White House (quite literally) were able to breath freely again as, one by one, masks began to come off.

At the White House, a maskless President Biden struck a more statesmanlike tone when he addressed the public in the Rose Garden.

“The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and C.D.C. announced that they’re no longer recommending that fully vaccinated people need wear masks,” Mr. Biden said. “This recommendation holds true whether you are inside or outside. I think it’s a great milestone, a great day.”

At an earlier meeting on infrastructure, held in the Oval Office with a bipartisan group of senators, Mr. Biden — whose advisers were so strict about masks that they were known to police private meetings — stripped off his face covering, and so did the senators, Senator Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia told reporters.

In the past, Mr. Biden would only go mask-free around family members and his closest advisers — at least, until they were instructed by more stringent advisers, including Ron Klain, the chief of staff, to put their masks back on, a senior administration official said.

In the West Wing, officials, who have refrained from holding large in-person meetings together, began removing their masks as the administration issued new guidance for anyone on the complex: Anyone who had received their last required vaccine dose at least 14 days earlier could now go mask-free.

And in more dramatic corners of the capital, other lawmakers celebrated the new guidance.

Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the minority leader, quoted the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to reporters as he addressed them without a mask for the first time in months: “Free at last.”

On the road in Charleston, Dr. Biden, accompanied by Senator Joe Manchin III, Democrats of West Virginia, did their part to motivate the public. Once on the ground, Mr. Manchin immediately got to work speaking into a succession of local news cameras.

“You’ve all seen the latest from the C.D.C.? That means no masks inside or outside,” Mr. Manchin said to a group of reporters.

“What does that mean for the people of West Virginia?” a reporter asked.

“It means get vaccinated!” Mr. Manchin said. “We feel free.”

It didn’t hurt their cause that the actress Jennifer Garner, who grew up in the state, appeared alongside them for the visit. Ms. Garner, who had shown up to the airport in Charleston wearing a mask, quickly stripped it off as she saw the first lady descend the plane steps.

As she toured the high school with Dr. Biden, Mr. Manchin, and his wife, Gayle, Ms. Garner smiled, mask-free, at a set of starry-eyed high school students.

“I kind of can’t believe that I’m standing here without a mask on looking at maskless faces,” Ms. Garner said to a group in the school’s gymnasium.

All around her, people began removing masks from their faces, their smiles again visible.

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