United States President-elect Joe Biden has said he and a group of leading US governors have agreed to a national mask mandate after he takes office in January, as the country is experiencing a surge in COVID-19 infections.
Speaking with a group of leading US state governors on Thursday, Biden said wearing masks to prevent the potential spread of the novel coronavirus, which has killed more than 250,000 Americans to date, is “not a political statement”.
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“It is a patriotic duty,” said Biden, who won the US presidential election on November 3, the results of which are still being disputed by President Donald Trump and his supporters.
The US has recorded 11.6 million COVID-19 cases and more than 250,000 deaths since the pandemic began early this year, Johns Hopkins University has reported.
New case numbers are rising rapidly across the country at an average of more than 162,000 a day, according to data collected by The New York Times, and several states in recent weeks have instituted restrictions aimed at stopping the spread of infections.
Biden said he does not intend to force a nationwide shutdown of the US economy, but expects to see limited restrictions based in specific local conditions.
“It’s not shutting down. It’s calibrating based on what the threat is,” Biden said during a news conference after his meeting with 10 leading Republican and Democratic governors.
Biden met virtually with members of the National Governor’s Association executive committee, which includes Republican governors Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas, Charlie Baker of Massachusetts, Gary Herbert of Utah, Larry Hogan of Maryland and Kay Ivey of Alabama.
It was the first time since the election that Biden has publicly met Republican officials.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, Michelle Lujan Grisham of New Mexico, Jared Polis of Colorado and Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan also joined the call alongside members of Biden’s presidential transition team.
Providing economic relief to cities, states and tribal communities affected by the pandemic is a top priority, said Biden, who also called on the US Congress to provide the funding for states and localities in a COVID-19 relief bill.
So far, Trump and Senate Republicans have opposed such funding.
Biden said a significant public education campaign to prepare Americans for “equitable” distribution of a “safe” and “free vaccine” would be necessary, as well.
Meanwhile, the president-elect hit out against Trump for refusing to acknowledge the outcome of the election, calling the president’s baseless attacks on voting practices in key states “irresponsible”.
The public is “witnessing incredible irresponsibility, incredibly damaging messaging to the rest of the world about how democracy functions”, Biden said. “Most of the Republicans I have spoken to, including some of the governors, think this is debilitating. It sends a horrible message.”
He also expressed continuing frustration that Emily Murphy, the Trump administration’s secretary of the general services administration, has not yet designated him the apparent winner of the election, which would allow a formal transition process under law to proceed.
“Until she does that, we don’t have access to all the information that we need from all the different agencies,” Biden said.
National response planned
Still, Biden said his advisory board would be following up with COVID-19 teams in the governors’ offices to further develop a national response to the pandemic.
He also said that, as president, he would work to help states battle the pandemic.
“Now, getting into the holidays you’re facing another surge … including huge pressure on your hospitals,” Biden told the governors, according to a pool report. “You need help. I want you to know I will be your partner in the White House.”
Several states have enacted new restrictions in recent weeks to try to stem the spread of the virus.
Following a sharp increase in the number of COVID-19 hospitalisations in Arkansas, for instance, Governor Asa Hutchinson announced on Thursday that he would be requiring bars and restaurants to begin closing daily at 11pm through January 2021.
“Today we implemented the first recommendation of the COVID-19 Winter Task Force, and I will address hospital capacity tomorrow,” Hutchinson said in a statement.
Arkansas has nearly 17,000 active cases of COVID-19 with more than 400 new cases being added each day, and state health authorities said 146 people in hospitals were currently on ventilators.
The US’s top public health agency, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, also urged Americans on Thursday to avoid travelling for Thanksgiving on November 26 to avoid spreading the deadly virus.