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The beginning of the end
Should that headline come with an exclamation point, a question mark or a period?
Different people will have different answers to that question. But Thursday’s big CDC announcements — if you’re fully vaccinated, take off your mask — was an undeniable milestone for the US in the Covid-19 pandemic. “The end of the pandemic may not be near, exactly, but it’s no longer rash, impolitic or scientifically dubious to broach the topic,” Joel Achenbach wrote in a front page story for Friday’s Washington Post.
Russell Berman of The Atlantic said “a few more twists and turns in the pandemic” surely lie ahead, given the ongoing global spread of the virus, but “when the pandemic is finally indeed over, the country might look back at the unexpected announcement of May 13 as a moment of demarcation — even as something of an end.”
President Biden celebrated the day along with VP Kamala Harris: “Today is a great day for America,” he said.
So now that the CDC and POTUS have spoken, this story shifts to states, cities and corporations. Big chains and small businesses. Starbucks and Uber. School boards and apartment building bosses. I’m particularly interested in how corporate America interprets the new norms, and how quickly, since inertia is a powerful force…
A “rip-your-mask-off moment”
“Today is to the end of pandemic what last year’s March date was to the beginning,” Oliver Darcy remarked in a text.
I instantly knew the date he meant: March 11, 2020. “Tom Hanks day.” The Covid crisis was already well underway but Hanks and the NBA and abrupt business closures crystallized it in the minds of many Americans.
Similarly, May 13, 2021 was a clarifying moment — the day when the country’s premiere health agency finally said fully vaccinated folks can (and the implicit word was “should”) resume normal life. “May 13 should be a national holiday,” Snapchat’s Peter Hamby wrote on Twitter, and I found myself agreeing. “This is momentous,” Dr. Sanjay Gupta said on CNN. “A rip-your-mask-off moment for Americans,” Peter Alexander said on NBC. Well, for fully vaccinated Americans. (But will anyone be able to distinguish?)
The news media’s role now
Just as the news media played a crucial role in educating the public about Covid-19 and modeling best practices for public health, now the media has an equally important role in showcasing a gradual return to normal. I can see this happening in at least three ways: First, by thoroughly covering the data and research that supports this relaxed posture; second, by lifting up the audience’s concerns (What about children?) and presenting those questions to public health officials; and third, by implementing the guidance on sets and in newsrooms and at offices.
Many media workers want to get back to their desks ASAP. Many others want to keep working at home or otherwise take advantage of newfound flexibility. It’s complicated. But I know that complaints about the mostly closed status quo are getting louder and louder every day. Much more to come on this…
Here’s why Thursday’s change seemed like a surprise
Because it was! A major revision to the CDC guidance was not known to be in the cards. Quoting CNN’s Kaitlan Collins and Jeremy Diamond: “White House officials were surprised when the CDC informed them Wednesday night around 9pm that the agency was changing its guidance for fully vaccinated people… They did not expect the CDC to release new masking guidance for at least several more days and also did not anticipate how far-reaching the guidance would be given the CDC’s cautious track record. But that is exactly how the White House wants these situations to be handled after President Biden came into office vowing to restore the CDC’s independence.”
So that’s why the WH scrambled to add a Biden speech a couple of hours after CDC Director Rochelle Walensky announced the news…