News & Politics

Why Is the Government Wasting $83M Distributing Masks That Are Already Widely Available?

AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

I do not often find myself admiring our betters in the legacy media, especially those at that most unscrupulous of Trump-hating and Andrew Cuomo-obsessed outlets, CNN. Yet on Wednesday, a CNN reporter asked the team of COVID-19 experts at the White House an extremely important question.

Why is the federal government wasting — oh, sorry, I meant “investing” — $83 million in distributing cloth masks to community health centers and food pantries when masks are already widely available? How does this make sense?

Jeffrey Zients, President Joe Biden’s White House coronavirus response coordinator, struggled to answer the question.

Before I get to the CNN question, a brief note on the policy.

During a press briefing on Wednesday, Zients announced that in March, the White House will “deliver millions of masks to food banks and community health centers around the country” as part of the administration’s push to “ensure an equitable response.”

“While masks are widely available in many different shapes and sizes, many low-income Americans still lack affordable access to this basic protection,” Zients argued. The initiative will involve “more than 25 million” “well-fitting cloth masks available in children’s and adult sizes” at “more than 1,300 community health centers and at 60,000 food pantries nationwide.”

Medical advice on masks has vacillated during the COVID-19 pandemic. The CDC has recommended different kinds of masks.

In this context, CNN’s Jeremy Diamond asked a rather important question.

“Just lastly on the question of the mask shipments, I’m wondering how much it is costing the administration to ship these masks,” Diamond began. “And, you know, at this point, given that Americans who want to wear a mask largely aren’t having trouble actually finding masks, what’s the rationale behind this? And are there — you know, how does this help solve the problem of mask hesitancy, which seems to be one of the bigger issues here?”

Zients had no trouble specifying the cost of the program at $86 million, but he did not address the more important question.

“We really believe that this policy makes a lot of sense in that it allows, you know, people who are not able to, in some situations, find or afford a mask, to get a mask.  And it’s part of our equity strategy and central to that,” Zients insisted.

Biden’s COVID-19 response director categorically refused to accept the fact that most Americans do not have trouble acquiring masks. Reusable cloth masks of the kind the CDC recommends are widely available at extremely low prices, sometimes at less than $5 per mask. Many charities have also taken up the cause of providing masks at little to no cost.

Americans are not struggling to acquire masks. The actual wearing of masks arguably poses a far greater problem. While masks truly do help prevent the spread of COVID-19, many Americans simply don’t trust the experts on this issue, or they wish to defy Biden’s mandates. The fact that guidance on masks has been inconsistent does not help matters.

Ironically, Zients himself undercut the argument for the $83 million mask boondoggle in a response to Bloomberg’s Josh Wingrove.

Wingrove asked Zients if the team “deliberated [on] whether to send [masks] to all Americans. Can you talk a little bit about that sort of decision?  Was it — was that just, sort of, too big an undertaking? You get more, sort of, impact to send it more targeted?”

“You know, months ago, sending a mask to every American would have been a good idea,” Zients said. “Today, masks are widely available in many different shapes and sizes” (emphasis added).

The COVID-19 response director insisted that “not all Americans are wearing masks regularly, and not all masks are equal.”

Indeed, masks are widely available, so why does the government need to spend $83 million on mask distribution?

Zients has yet to provide a satisfying answer.

Tyler O’Neil is the author of Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Follow him on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.

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