Feb 10, 2022 - Podcasts

Mixed messaging on masks

This week, a number of Democratic governors announced that their states are dropping their mask mandates and ending some COVID restrictions. And at the same time, CDC guidance continues to recommend indoor masking. So what’s driving the governors‘ decisions — politics or science?

  • Plus, the inflation dilemma: be patient or cause a recession?
  • And, the federal government rethinks facial recognition

Guests: Axios' Mike Allen, Neil Irwin and Ina Fried.

Credits: Axios Today is produced in partnership with Pushkin Industries. The team includes Niala Boodhoo, Margaret Talev, Sara Kehaulani Goo, Julia Redpath, Alexandra Botti, Nuria Marquez Martinez, Alex Sugiura, Sabeena Singhani, and Lydia McMullen-Laird. Music is composed by Evan Viola. You can reach us at [email protected]. You can text questions, comments and story ideas to Niala as a text or voice memo to 202-918-4893.

Go deeper:


MARGARET TALEV: Good morning! Welcome to Axios Today! It’s Thursday, February 10th. I’m Margaret Talev in for Niala Boodhoo. Here’s how we’re making you smarter today: The inflation dilemma: be patient or cause a recession. Plus, The federal government rethinks facial recognition. But first, mixed messaging on masks is today’s One Big Thing.

This week, a number of democratic governors announced that their states are dropping their mask mandates and ending some COVID restrictions. And at the same time, CDC director, Rochelle Walensky said they are still recommending indoor masking. Here to help us make sense of this mixed messaging is Axios co-founder Mike Allen. Hi, Mike.

MIKE ALLEN: Good morning, Margaret.

MARGARET: These are mostly blue states that we're hearing from this week. We've heard from New York, Rhode Island, they joined New Jersey, Delaware, California. Other states are in the pipeline, Virginia even. We're hearing about swing states. What is driving these decisions? Is it politics or science?

MIKE: Well, governors will tell you both, but I can tell you, the Democrats are worried about being alone, left off reality island. Margaret you've been covering it in our Axios Ipsos Coronavirus poll. But we're finding again and again, people say, they think they're going to get it, they think it's not going away, and we find them across the spectrum wanting to live their lives.

MARGARET: It's interesting because what we have been hearing from parents over the course of the last several months has been this push for more parental say in what happens in the classroom. But that that mask issue has been kind of suspended in this space where parents are like, yeah, I want my kids to have freedom of movement, but I want them to be safe. What has prompted this? It feels like a tipping point.

MIKE: Nope. That's exactly right. So you take the biggest issue in the world, COVID and then you add to it, this rising political issue, parental rights, which proved to be very potent issue because it isn't necessarily left or right on the spectrum. Republicans are going to continue parental rights as a big issue along with the border and crime and inflation, Democrats are going to find a way to talk about it so that they don't just concede that issue to Republicans because education has typically been a democratic issue. So here you see Democrats trying to readjust, wanting to make sure that especially in a midterm year, they're not in a very different place for where the public is. And look between the lines at what president Biden's COVID task force said, you're right. Not announcing any big moves, but listen to what they're saying, we're going to talk to governors, we're going to talk to locals, we're going to talk to outside public health experts and they say, we're going to look at our guidance. Like all that suggests big changes to come, right?

MARGARET: I was going to ask you how you really feel like the administration has responded. it seems that they're being less than definitive right now.

MIKE: Well, they're a little bit caught because they want to follow the science. And yet the science and the policy have lagged where people's opinions are. So opinions lead, then you get the science, then you get the policy. And if you're the person who's in charge, that puts you in a tough place. So we've seen it again again, it's been hard for the government to keep up with exactly where the science is. The government was a little slow to push people to get booster shots after the science on that was clear. And now a new big issue, which is shots for toddlers, right? The science on that is less clear and yet a big push, a lot of parents super anxious for that.

MARGARET: What does the science say? I mean, I feel like the science says that wearing masks does make a difference, but the science also says that kids don't get it as much as adults do.

MIKE: The science and the reality aren't clear to most of America. And that's a big problem of where the administration is. That it's been so confusing it's been back and forth, muddled message the headlines say. And once again, we have proof of people really aren't sure. And a little bit, that's why people are saying I'm moving on. I don't know about y'all. And that's where these democratic governors come in. They see that and they're moving with their people.

MARGARET: Axios co-founder Mike Allen. Thanks Mike.

MIKE: Margaret, have the best day.

MARGARET: We’re back in 15 seconds with how inflation could end.


MARGARET: Welcome back to Axios Today! I’m Margaret Talev in for Niala Boodhoo. It may cost you a lot more to throw a Super Bowl party this year. The price of chicken wings is up more than 14% over the last year. Steak is up a whopping 23%. Even soft drinks are up 12%, according to Wells Fargo. There’s no doubt inflation is making our lives much more expensive, but what should we do about it? Our colleague Neil Irwin has been writing about something he calls the inflation dilemma. And, Neil, you say that there are really only two options in the face of inflation. Either be patient or trigger a recession. Why are those the two options?

NEIL IRWIN: Well, the truth is these inflationary forces are driven by very powerful, deep things happening in the economy. This isn't something where Joe Biden or, or Jay Powell, the Federal Reserve chair, can wave a wand and make this go away. The one thing that would really make it go away, though, is if we did have a recession. If you had a steep decline in economic activity, that's where you might get these forces to abate. But that's not a very happy outcome for anyone. Other than that, it's just going to take some time for these flaws and problems throughout the global economy to work themselves out.

MARGARET: You're saying the things that can be done take time to work out.

NEIL: I am. Yeah. And there's, look. There's things happening, right? So The White House has been focused on trying to get the ports unclogged and working on supply problems in the meat industry, meat processing. The Federal Reserve is getting ready to raise interest rates. They're trying to slow the economy in ways that will lessen these inflationary pressures, but even those don't happen overnight. These are things that take time to ripple out through the economy.

MARGARET: How much time are we talking about?

NEIL: Look, I think there's a good chance that the rate of inflation will come down over the course of this year. We don't know how much, we don't know how fast, but that's not the same as prices going back to what they were. So even if we get down from 7% inflation to 4 or 5, that would be a reduction in the rate, but that's still, everything's 5% more expensive than it was a year ago. And that's on top of the 7% we've already had. You know, I think that the chances that we have a slower rate of inflation later this year are pretty good. The odds that we have prices that go back to 2019 levels? Not so great.

MARGARET: Neil, I'm gonna ask you to take off your analyst hat and put on your betting man's hat for a second. If the two choices are patience or recession, where do you see this country going in the next six months?

NEIL: I think Biden and The Fed have to go with patience because there's no better option. Um, that's going to be what comes out of Washington, out of the policy world. I think American citizens are fed up, and I think the idea is that this is going to be a volatile year for politics, uh, as long as this high inflation lasts is the writings on the wall. In every public opinion survey that you look at.

MARGARET: Axios’ chief economic correspondent Neil Irwin. Thanks, Neil.

NEIL: Thanks, Margaret.

C BLOCK [slug] [time]

MARGARET: Earlier this week, under pressure from politicians and activists, the IRS announced it was abandoning a controversial plan to require taxpayers to use facial recognition software to identify themselves. Now, there’s a push to get other federal agencies to follow suit. Axios' Ina Fried has more -

INA FRIED: There've been a lot of concerns for a long time about government use of facial recognition technology, given its propensity to not work as well with women and people of color. However, the issue really came to a head when the IRS started using it to authenticate people For various online transactions. And they had plans to incorporate this even more broadly in the coming months. The IRS backtracked, said they won't incorporate this technology. They won't continue using it. And now the same folks that were in opposition to the IRS using it are urging other government agencies, the Justice Department, the Homeland Security department, Health and Human Services, and Veterans Affairs to stop using facial recognition as well. And so they're sort of moving on. Meanwhile, the company that did this, id dot me, is now saying that it will offer an option to government customers that want it, that people don't have to go through an automated facial recognition process if they don't want to and can be connected directly to a human who can verify they are who they say they are.

MARGARET: Axios' chief technology correspondent Ina Fried.

That’s all we’ve got for you today! I’m Margaret Talev - thanks for listening, we’ll see you back here tomorrow morning. Every week the ‘Art of Power’ podcast shares intimate, unexpected conversations with changemakers like Barack Obama and Margaret Cho. Listen to WBEZ Chicago host Aarti Shahani and the ‘Art of Power’ wherever you get your podcasts.

Go deeper