Former Vice President Joe Biden promised that if elected president, he would do everything in his power to mandate that Americans nationwide wear masks while in public amid the coronavirus pandemic.
That fits with a general pattern we have seen throughout the crisis, with Democratic officials reveling in exercising heavy-handed emergency powers over Americans’ lives, whether it be Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in Michigan, Gov. Gavin Newsom in California, Gov. Andrew Cuomo in New York or Mayor Bill de Blasio in the Big Apple itself.
Biden, who has spent the last several weeks taking pot shots at President Donald Trump over his handling of the COVID-19 outbreak, was asked by a reporter with Pittsburgh CBS News affiliate KDKA-TV what he would do differently if he were in charge.
“I would go back to making sure that everybody had masks, that you had [personal protective equipment] lined up, we’d have been making sure we stockpile all the things that we need that we don’t have now,” the Democratic presidential nominee responded.
“The one thing we do know, these masks make a gigantic difference. I would insist that everybody out in public be wearing that mask. Anyone to reopen — would have to make sure that they walked into a business that had masks,” the former vice president added.
The reporter followed up by questioning if Biden would use the power of the federal government to mandate that people wear masks.
“Yes, I would from an executive standpoint, yes, I would,” was the response.
“So you would, in effect, mandate the wearing of masks?” the reporter asked.
“I would do everything possible to make it required that people had to wear masks in public,” Biden answered.
If this crisis has taught us anything about government, it is that we have a federal system.
The Constitution grants certain enumerated powers to the federal government, but leaves the plenary power, including responsibility for public health and safety, with the states and the people.
This relationship was highlighted as Trump encouraged state governors and mayors not to be overly restrictive in their lockdowns or too slow in reopening their economies.
But he really didn’t have the authority to order governors or mayors to take a different course.
The way the reporter asked his questions to Biden on the subject was a recognition that the former vice president may run into some obstacles if he tried to mandate mask wearing.
Biden appeared to realize his mistake and walk back his initial answer, saying he would do “everything possible to make it required.”
Usually when the federal government tries to mandate an action at the state and local level that it doesn’t have the clear authority to do under the Constitution, it comes down to money: withholding federal funds.
Another route for Biden could be through Congress. The commerce clause of the Constitution gives that legislative body the power to regulate interstate transactions between the states, which courts have interpreted broadly to mean pretty much anything that affects the economy.
So conceivably, if Biden could convince Congress to pass a law mandating masks be worn, it could withstand a court challenge, as the coronavirus has clearly had an impact on the economy.
But beyond the question of “could he” is the more important question: Should he?
Another lesson from the pandemic is that the safety needs of those in urban New York are different than the needs of those living in Montana or Alaska or even in the more rural parts of the Empire State itself.
Further, experts are split over just how effective facial coverings are at slowing the spread of COVID-19, particularly if they are not N95 masks.
“The bottom line, experts say, is that masks might help keep people with COVID-19 from unknowingly passing along the virus. But the evidence for the efficacy of surgical or homemade masks is limited,” LiveScience reported earlier this month.
“In a surgical mask, about 70 percent of the outside air moves through the mask and about 30 percent travels around the sides,” the outlet added, paraphrasing comments from May Chu, a clinical professor in epidemiology at the Colorado School of Public Health.
Fabric masks impede only about 2 percent of airflow in, Chu added.
“All of this leakage in surgical and fabric masks are why public health officials generally don’t believe that wearing a mask prevents anyone from catching a virus that is already floating around in the environment,” according to LiveScience.
This leaves a properly fitted N95 mask as the really only effective shield, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention rightly wants health care workers to have priority for those.
Biden’s proposed mask mandate foreshadows what his presidency would be: more ineffective top-down directives coming from the federal government.
To the extent that masks of any kind remind people that we are dealing with a pandemic, they probably do at least some good. But the decision to require them should be kept at the state and local levels and not mandated from Washington, D.C.
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