There are points in the story of handling COVID-19 where the Trump White House appears to be merely incompetent. Points where newspapers pull out the word “bungled,” and broadcasters tsk regretfully over opportunities lost. However, there are also moments when the nation is forcefully reminded that Donald Trump did not bungle the federal response to the coronavirus pandemic; he stood down that response deliberately, making a conscious choice to back away from providing testing, contact tracing, or any federal restrictions. He did so because he thought it would be politically expedient to allow more people to die, then blame their deaths on others. That wasn’t an accident. That was the plan.
Friday evening brought a fresh reminder of that fact as The New York Times reported that in September the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention prepared a response to rising cases of COVID-19 across the nation, and to fresh evidence that the virus is particularly dangerous inside the kind of tight quarters involved in most forms of transportation. That order would have required both passengers and crew on planes, buses, and trains across the nation to wear masks. Right now, both the rules and the enforcement are left to individual localities or companies, resulting in frequent arguments, delays that endanger an already fragile transportation system, and Republican politicians smugly baring their faces mid-flight.
But even though the mask mandate was limited to transportation, and had the support of not just the CDC but other experts on the Coronavirus Task Force, “Mike Pence, declined to even discuss it.”
Pence understands that his role at the head of the task force is to stop anything from happening. He’s performed that role well.
Instead, a task force official indicated that any decision on masks would be left up to state and local officials. Which is exactly the kind of ridiculous system that has left airlines and Amtrak attempting to police unruly Trump supporters set on flouting company regulations. Are passengers on a plane passing over a state with a mask mandate required to don them? If they fly over a state where the governor refuses to issue such a mandate, can they take them off? The transient natural of any transportation is exactly why interstate trains, buses, and planes are regulated at the federal level.
The argument might just as well be made that each state should set up it’s own FAA and develop its own set of safety guidelines. Though … Republicans might actually support that proposition.
In insisting that the decision on masks mandates be left up to localities, the unnamed task force official made another of those unintentionally ironic statements by claiming that the approach taken “in New York City is different than Montana, or Tuscaloosa, Alabama.” And that local officials know best how the pandemic is affecting their areas.
First, it’s worth noting that both Alabama and Montana are seeing much more rapid growth of COVID-19 cases than New York. Alabama already has a higher number of cases per population, and even a much higher number of currently active cases than New York. Both Alabama and Montana are currently showing over 10% positive rates on testing. New York is showing 1.2%. If state and local officials were actually responding to the level of threat in their area, both Alabama and Montana would have applied restrictions at least as great as those in force for New York by this point. They haven’t. Because state and local officials in Republican states are not responding to the level of threat. They’re responding to the signals from Trump that tell them not to respond.
Second, a train crossing the nation from one coast to another is not defined by the level of virus activity at any point along the line. It’s defined by the level of infection on the train. By the level of virus among passengers confined to small areas with limited circulation for long hours. The same thing applies to buses. And to planes. Even if those vehicles are passing through, or arriving, at a location where the level of new cases is low, it doesn’t matter if the transport itself is a moving super-spreader event.
But of course, not just ignoring the outbreak, but demeaning the CDC has become standard operations at the Trump White House. They’ve overruled directives emerging from the agency repeatedly, even going so far as to have a pair of HHS officials directly alter CDC guidelines on testing to suggest that people who have been exposed don’t need to be tested unless they also exhibit symptoms.
It’s all part of why the United States topped 60,000 new cases on Friday—the highest value since early August — and why the level of COVID-19 deaths continues to average over 900 Americans a day.
This is a Creative Commons article. The original version of this article appeared here.