WASHINGTON -- President Joe Biden announced Thursday that all federal employees and on-site contractors will have to be vaccinated against the coronavirus or be required to wear masks and undergo repeated testing, an order that will affect millions of workers and is designed to be a model for other employers.
The new policy, a major change in the White House strategy against covid-19, reflects a heightened concern within the West Wing about the raging delta variant, which is driving up infections and hospitalizations throughout large regions of the country at the same time that vaccination rates have stalled.
The administration hopes the new directive will have a ripple effect and persuade an array of state and local governments, as well as private companies, to push their workers and customers harder to get vaccinated.
"I think you're going to find the patience of businesses, and the patience of other people, running thin," Biden said, his voice at times rising in exasperation. "Because the fact is, if we had a higher vaccination rate, we wouldn't be in this position."
He added, "If in fact you are unvaccinated, you present a problem -- to yourself, to your family, and to those with whom you work. ... You want to know how we put this virus behind us? I'll tell you how. We need to get more people vaccinated."
The announcement drew immediate pushback, including from federal unions. The Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, which represents more than 26,000 officers, said requiring vaccinations is an infringement on civil rights. The American Postal Workers Union also said it was opposed to requiring vaccinations for its members.
The need for mandates was dismissed by many at first, in part because public health officials assumed they wouldn't be necessary once vaccines were widely available. But now that they have become the latest front in America's culture wars and up to 30% of Americans are refusing to get shots, many leaders are reconsidering whether tougher measures are needed.
The country is experiencing a seven-day average of nearly 70,000 new infections a day now, after the rate fell as low as roughly 11,000 new cases daily last month. Biden in his speech made several direct appeals to the unvaccinated. If you are not vaccinated, he pleaded, get a shot; and if you are, please be patient.
To those who are resisting immunizations, he said, "It's an American blessing that we have vaccines for each and every American. ... This is such a shame to squander that blessing."
And to the vaccinated, he said, "I know it's frustrating. I know it's exhausting to think we're still in this fight." But, he added, "This is no time to be despondent or let our guard down. We just have to finish the job -- with science, with facts, with the truth."
Roughly 164 million Americans have been fully vaccinated, according to The Washington Post's vaccine tracker. About 90 million Americans haven't had a single shot. An additional 26 million have had only one of the two required shots and thus aren't fully inoculated.
The president's directive for now affects only the civilian workforce, but he said he has asked the Defense Department to examine adding the coronavirus vaccine to the nearly two-dozen inoculations that are already required for service members. There are roughly 2 million federal employees, and close to 4 million federal contractors, giving Biden's actions a potentially powerful impact.
Late Thursday, Pentagon spokesman Jamal Brown said military and civilian personnel will be "asked to attest to their vaccination status." Those unable or unwilling to take that step will have to wear masks, socially distance and undergo regular coronavirus testing, Brown said. Their travel will also be restricted.
Seeking to deploy carrots as well as sticks, Biden also said he is calling on state and local governments to offer $100 payments to everyone who gets vaccinated.
"I know that paying people to get vaccinated might sound unfair to people who got vaccinated already," the president conceded. "But here's the deal: If incentives can help us beat this virus, I believe we should use them. We all benefit."
The money would come from the $350 billion fund to help states, local governments and territories that was part of the American Rescue Plan passed by Congress earlier this year.
And the president appeared open to more aggressive measures, saying it is "still a question whether the federal government can mandate the whole country" to get vaccinated.
The country appears to be at something of a pivotal point as a critical mass comes to accept that some form of vaccine requirement may be necessary. Earlier this week, California and New York said they would require government employees to be vaccinated or face repeated testing requirements, and high-profile companies like Google and Facebook are also adopting stricter measures.
"This week has been a very important -- I don't know how you want to phrase it -- breaking of the dam, tidal wave, tipping point, there are lots of ways of putting it," said Ezekiel Emanuel, vice provost of the University of Pennsylvania. "There has been a consensus that we are going to have to have mandates."
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this week also reversed its earlier recommendations on masking, sending out new guidance that even vaccinated Americans should wear face coverings in areas where the virus is spreading at high levels. That has prompted a new round of indoor mask mandates across the country, including in Washington.
Still, the movement against vaccines and mandates remains powerful, as some activists complain they infringe on liberty and others embrace conspiracy theories about the shots. Courts have so far upheld the mandates, but the clashes are likely to escalate in the fall as universities require vaccines and schools insist on masks.
In a potential sign of battles to come, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a Republican, announced Thursday that he was calling a special session of the Legislature to discuss the repeal of a law that forbids public schools from requiring masks. In contrast, Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas, also a Republican, issued an executive order, also Thursday, preventing local governments from issuing mandates.
In a stark symbol of the changing landscape, Biden wore a black mask as he walked up to the lectern in the East Room of the White House on Thursday, the first time in weeks he had been spotted wearing one.
Also Thursday, Biden and congressional Democrats scrambled to find a way to prevent a federal eviction moratorium from expiring on Saturday, mounting a last-minute effort as fears spread about the economic impact of a new resurgence of the coronavirus.
Biden called on Congress to act "without delay" to extend the moratorium, which applies to renters who have fallen behind because of financial hardship linked to the pandemic. Top White House aides fretted that the administration could not act on its own as a result of a recent Supreme Court ruling.
The moratorium was last extended a month ago and little had been done in recent weeks to advance another extension through Congress.
House Democratic leaders started canvassing the chamber for votes Thursday to determine whether they had enough support to extend the moratorium until Dec. 31, according to a senior party aide who requested anonymity to describe the leadership's thinking. Democrats aim to bring up the measure before departing this week.
In the Senate, lawmakers led by Majority Leader Charles Schumer, N.Y., and Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, leader of the chamber's top housing panel, started preparing their own last-ditch attempt to extend the moratorium. They seek to approve it under unanimous consent, according to two senior Democratic aides, a tough proposition given potential Republican objections.
MICKEY SAYS MASK UP
Even the self-described "most magical place on earth" can't quite escape coronavirus concerns: Walt Disney World Resort in Florida announced that it's now requiring all guests to wear masks indoors, reversing a June decision not to mandate them for those vaccinated.
The huge resort -- home to four theme parks, more than 30,000 hotel rooms, golf courses and expansive water parks -- said Wednesday the rules would take effect today for all guests 2 and older. Face coverings will remain optional in outdoor common areas, the company said.
"As we have done since reopening, we've been very intentional and gradual in our approach to our COVID-19 health and safety protocols," Disney said in a statement, adding, "We encourage people to get vaccinated."
Disney's policy follows the CDC's reversal calling for vaccinated people to resume indoor mask-wearing in high-risk areas.
Yet Florida -- a current hot spot, accounting for about 1 in 5 new national cases -- has become a political battleground over coronavirus restrictions.
In the latest front, the Democratic mayor of Orange County, where the Disney World Resort is, issued an executive order Wednesday declaring a "state of local emergency" in response to rising covid cases, while Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis maintains his opposition to wider pandemic restrictions.
The mayor of Miami-Dade County also said that in response to an "alarming rise" in local cases, "effective immediately, masks will be required again at all indoor ... facilities for employees & for visitors."
'WE BELIEVE IN FREEDOM'
In Mississippi, Republican Gov. Tate Reeves said at a political gathering Thursday that a federal recommendation for people to wear masks indoors is "foolish" and "harmful," even as covid-19 is surging in the state.
"It reeks of political panic so as to appear they are in control," Reeves said in an outdoor speech at the Neshoba County Fair. "It has nothing -- let me say that again -- it has nothing to do with rational science," Reeves said. "In Mississippi, we believe in freedom."
Mississippi has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the nation. Reeves went on camera to get his own vaccination early this year. At the fair Thursday, he said former President Donald Trump's Operation Warp Speed "delivered that miracle vaccine, and he did it in record time."
Reeves noted that 1.2 million Mississippi residents have been vaccinated.
"Others have chosen a different path," he said. "And I will always defend those individuals' right to decide what is best for them and their families."
Reeves said this week that he will not set a mask mandate for schools.
In Kentucky. Gov. Andy Beshear defended his mask requirement for state workers Thursday, brushing off criticism from state GOP officials who said they would not enforce the mandate in their offices.
"Listen, I care more about my people than my popularity. I got the backbone to do what's right for them and I wish other people did too," a clearly irritated Democratic governor told reporters. "At some point you got to do the right thing for your people and not try to score political points."
Beshear said he isn't able to take disciplinary action against workers in the Department of Agriculture, the office of the state treasurer, the Legislative Research Commission or the state auditor's office who don't wear masks, but he warned that they "face a much higher likelihood that they get covid and they get really sick" if they don't.
Beshear issued the order for state workers and visitors to any state building Wednesday, prompted by a statewide surge. The state's test positivity rate -- which had dipped below 2% on July 1 -- was 8.29% on Wednesday.
Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles fired off a tweet at the new requirement Wednesday, saying it would "undermine confidence in the vaccine at a time when it is needed most."
"These decisions are giving Kentuckians whiplash," said Quarles. "First no mask, then mask. Short term measures turn into long term shutdowns. Our people have Kentucky common sense and are more likely to be persuaded by reason than by threats or mandates," he added.
Information for this article was contributed by Annie Linskey, John Wagner, Seung Min Kim, Dan Lamothe, Eli Rosenberg, Tony Romm, Robert Barnes and Adela Suliman of The Washington Post; and by Piper Hudspeth Blackburn and additional staff members of The Associated Press. Blackburn is a corps member of the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative, a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.