Biden advisers urge state COVID-19 safety after Iowa lifts mask, other rules; FL has no state mask mandate

A surgical mask and a KN95 mask hang on display for sale at a pharmacy. Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images.

WASHINGTON — The Biden administration’s COVID-19 advisers on Monday urged that states keep safety restrictions in place as new variants of the virus continue to spread, following a move by Iowa’s governor to loosen rules on masks and gatherings.

“We really need to keep all of the mitigation measures at play here if we’re really going to get control of this pandemic,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said.

Her comment came in response to a question about Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds lifting the state’s mask mandate and restrictions on gatherings.

Under those rules, which took effect Sunday, masks are no longer required in any public settings in Iowa, contrary to CDC guidance. Restaurants and bars may operate at full capacity, and Reynolds encouraged hosts of private gatherings to “take reasonable measures” to ensure safety.

Florida has the largest number of mutations, called COVID variants, than any other state, the Florida Phoenix reported Sunday, based on CDC data.

Florida’s cases now total 201. Nationwide, the total is 690 cases of the United Kingdom B.1.1.7 variant. It is more transmissible and potentially more lethal and is spreading across the country in 33 states. The CDC also is tracking two other new strains, in five different states, but neither are in Florida.

Health officials say people should take measures, such as double masking, to avoid getting the variant strains. State officials can also pursue measures, such as a statewide mask mandate, though Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has been against such a requirement.

Walensky said that with the U.S. still averaging more than 100,000 new cases per day, she would “discourage” any efforts to scale back safety precautions that could help reduce the spread of COVID-19.

As soon as he took office last month, President Joe Biden enacted a requirement for mask-wearing and physical distancing in all federal buildings, on all federal lands, and by federal employees and contractors. He also signed an executive order requiring masks on airplanes, trains and other public transportation.

But the president’s authority to require masks beyond those areas is limited, and any broader mandates would take buy-in from state and local officials enacting rules in their jurisdictions.

Biden has sought to bridge a partisan divide over mask-wearing by encouraging the practice and calling it “a patriotic act.”

His administration has not outlined any punitive steps for states that do loosen restrictions. Andy Slavitt, a senior adviser on the White House’s COVID response team, said they “understand the pressure” on governors.

“We are taking a collaborative approach as much as possible, to share with them the data, helping them understand as we’ve covered on this call why we’re in such a critical period to combating the virus, and hope to continue to work to persuade and partner with states and localities, to continue to follow sensible public health measures,” Slavitt said.

Walensky said she’s been in touch one-on-one with “numerous” governors, though she and Slavitt declined to detail which governors or additional details of those conversations.

“I’m happy to be doing more to encourage the states to decrease their community spread so that we can decrease the threat of these variants, decrease our hospitalizations and get this pandemic under control,” Walensky said.

Florida Phoenix editor Diane Rado contributed to this report.