Mere hours after the existence of COVID’s Omicron variant was revealed to the world, Dr. Anthony Fauci found his way to a television studio to warn Americans that the bad old days of the pandemic may soon be back.
While it was “too early to say” if American businesses would be shuttered, schools closed, and curfews reimplemented with a new round of lockdowns, the nation had to be “prepared to do anything and everything” to stop the virus. Maybe this coronavirus wouldn’t be a “big deal,” Fauci added. But if it is, “we want to make sure that we’re prepared for the worst.”
Twenty-four hours or so after Fauci made these remarks, his boss, President Joe Biden, invalidated them. “This variant is a cause for concern, not a cause for panic,” the president said amid what had unquestionably become a global panic. “We’re going to fight and beat this new variant today,” he added, but “not with shutdowns or lockdowns.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention chief Dr. Rochelle Walensky reinforced the White House’s no-panicking policy. “We have the tools and surveillance in place to identify the Omicron variant,” she told reporters on Tuesday. “We also have the tools to prevent Omicron from increasing the strain on our society and our health care system.”
This sensible calm was not to last.
Late Tuesday night, the Washington Post reported and competing news outlets subsequently confirmed that the Biden administration was preparing to implement a new, severely restrictive COVID-mitigation policy that would not only inspire panic but could only have been produced as a result of panic.
According to that report, the president may or may not impose new travel restrictions on foreign nationals and American citizens that would be the strictest since the onset of the pandemic. Americans traveling abroad would have to show proof of full vaccination (a status the public health apparatus has already said would have to be amended to include a booster shot) to travel by air. They would also be required to produce a negative COVID test result conducted no more than three days prior to departure. For those without proof of vaccination, a negative result within 24 hours of flying would be necessary. Upon return, U.S. citizens would have to test negative once again, but they must also self-quarantine for at least seven days. Those who disobey these requirements would reportedly “be subject to fines and penalties.”
Even these draconian measures aren’t good enough for some of the Biden team’s public health advisers. “If it were up to me,” transition-era health advisor to Joe Biden, Celine Gounder, told the Post, “to fly, you should be fully vaccinated and we should also be testing 24 hours prior” to takeoff. This is effectively a policy of “COVID Zero” with a goal, to the extent there is a goal, of curbing viral transmission. Not hospitalization. Not death. Not intubation with the threat of overwhelming America’s intensive care units. Transmission alone.
That is not “lockdown,” of course. But it is a “shutdown” of the sort Joe Biden had only just told Americans he would not pursue. By some estimates, the revenue American businesses are already losing to preexisting inbound travel protocols totals in the billions. Such a profound disincentive to engage in travel would have serious economic consequences that would ripple out from the primarily affected industries, such as airlines and fossil fuel producers. The signal that the White House would send with such an oppressive measure would no doubt depress economic activity outside the hospitality and travel sectors, as more risk-averse Americans internalize the idea that the world outside their front doors is once again too dangerous to traverse.
But then, the White House may not do any of it. Officials are “still debating” this and other similarly onerous mitigation measures, and “no final decisions have been made.” After all, the Post’s report only cited sources unauthorized to speak on the matter in an official capacity. That is to say, leaks–presumably, from parties either interested in floating this policy to gauge its popularity or to pressure the president into doing something his instincts are telling him to avoid. It wouldn’t be the first time the public health apparatus has lobbied Biden’s executive agencies into restoring restrictions on American liberties.
Surely the Biden White House must know that this unsteady, confusing, and generally manic approach to the pandemic undermines the central value proposition of the Biden administration: stability and predictability in strong contrast to its predecessor? Surely, they must know that imposing the strongest mitigation measures of the pandemic when access to preventative vaccines is universal and six-in-ten Americans of all ages are fully vaccinated will be a tough sell to all but the most zealous COVID hawks? Surely, when even the public health bureaucracy (including the Omicron variant’s discoverer) admits that the known threat posed by this variant does not justify these measures, the White House must know it risks sabotaging the president’s credibility?
It is incumbent on the president to let his subordinates know who is boss. The voting public has entrusted the president alone with authority to weigh valid but competing interests and decide which one wins out. If Biden hopes to preserve the public’s faith in his ability to lead amid crisis, it has become inescapably clear that advocates for a perpetual pandemic within the president’s orbit will have to be sidelined. After all, who is in charge here?