'We're not going to lock down our economy,' White House says

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WASHINGTON — The White House used Friday’s news of nearly a million jobs gained throughout July to argue that notions of a potential pandemic backslide are greatly exaggerated.

“This is not March 2020,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said during a Friday press conference, addressing fears that the Delta-driven surge of COVID-19 cases now gripping the nation would see the return of crippling restrictions. “Or even January 2021. We’re not going to lock down our economy, or our schools, because our country is in a much stronger place than when we took office.”

The report of U.S. employers adding 943,000 jobs provided a welcome capstone as President Biden left Washington to spend the weekend at home in Delaware. It has been a week in which infection rates rose, the mask culture wars returned and Americans wondered what happened to a battle that seemed only weeks ago like it had been won.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki holds the daily press briefing at the White House in Washington, U.S. August 4, 2021. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
White House press secretary Jen Psaki at the White House on Wednesday. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Coronavirus vaccines were becoming widely available around the time Biden assumed office. A total of 193 million Americans have had at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine (two of the three vaccines approved in the United States require two doses), according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The unemployment rate today stands at 5.4 percent; when the pandemic first struck and businesses closed, that rate rose to 14.8 percent in April 2020. The economic recovery began under then-President Donald Trump, but Biden has made a more thorough return to normalcy a centerpiece of his presidency.

The more transmissible Delta variant has frustrated the White House, leading to questions about whether Biden was premature in declaring “independence” from the coronavirus last month. Even though Delta’s arrival in the United States was not unexpected — the strain had been circulating throughout India and the United Kingdom during the winter and spring — it appeared to land with a greater force than expected, quickly exploiting low-vaccination areas of the nation, including the Midwest and the Southeast.

Suddenly the U.S. is recording 100,000 new infections per day, ten times more than in late June. Amazon told employees this week that they would not have to return to offices until January 2022, a move that will likely be replicated by other businesses and could continue to starve urban centers of commuters.

Passengers wait in a long line to get a COVID-19 test to travel overseas at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, Friday, Aug. 6, 2021, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Recent flight cancelations caused many passengers to redo their tests while others were unable to get the test locally due to long lines caused by the surge of the Delta variant. (AP Photo/Marta Lavandier)
Passengers wait to get a COVID-19 test to travel overseas at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport on Friday in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. (Marta Lavandier/AP)

And there are renewed concerns that schools could revert to remote instruction, especially in states where governors have forbidden masks in schools. That could also cripple the economic recovery, forcing parents to reorient work schedules in order to monitor how their children, younger ones in particular, learn online. The burdens of remote learning are thought to have fallen primarily on women, who left the workforce in much greater numbers than men.

Still, the Biden administration insists that it is not alarmed, even as it takes increasingly aggressive measures to pressure holdouts to get vaccinated. Despite reports of rare breakthrough infections, COVID-19 vaccines are highly effective at preventing severe illness and death.

As she has before, Psaki said that the Biden administration “had been preparing like Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts for this moment.” Delta does move quickly, and some believe the current spike could subside within a matter of weeks. Though they remain highly politicized, masks are also highly effective at removing Delta’s primary advantage: its heightened transmissibility.

Masks have accordingly returned in many parts of the country, including the briefing room where Psaki took questions from reporters.

“We are not going back,” she vowed. “We are not turning back the clock.”


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